During the winter of 1942 to the spring of 1944, China's Henan Province is suffering a major drought and famine during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
In West Laorhung Village, Yanjin County, wealthy landlord Master Fan (Guoli Zhang), is forced to share food with a horde of starving bandits. A chaotic fight ensues; Fan's son (Zhao Yi) is killed, and his home is burned to the ground. The victims of robbery, the wealthy families turn to the county for help.
There is no help, and Master Fan, his daughter Lao Ma (Wei Fan), wife (Yuan Huifang), daughter-in-law (Li Qian), and servant Shuan Zhu (Mo Zhang) join a long parade of refugees heading for greener pastures in Shaanxi. They soon join up with fellow villager Xia Lu (Yuanzheng Feng) and his family.
A Nationalist Army commander, Jiang Dingwen (Yu Zhen) turns down Henan Province Gov. Li Peiji's (Xuejian Li) request to forgive the requisition for 750,000 tons of grain. His troops need to be fed. One of the tragedies of the famine is that little girls are sold as child brides so that the rest of the family can eat. In fact, the refugees are forced to get their nutrition from cooking ground-up dried wood.
Meanwhile, Time correspondent Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody) has heard about the horrible conditions the refugees of Henan are experiencing. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming Chen), head of Nationalist Government, decides to abandon Henan and let its residents fend for themselves against the invading Japanese Army.
Fan's daughter allows herself to be sold to a mattress factory for prostitution so she and her family (and her baby nephew) can have food to live (they already had to eat her pet cat).
After talking to Father Megan (Tim Robbins, in a pretty much useless character role) in Henan, White photographs the horror of the exodus and files a story about the refugees that causes outrage. Generalissimo Chiang is forced to send relief to the suffering Henan Chinese. Unfortunately, the county and provincial governments continue to look the gift horse of 300-million pounds of grain in the mouth.
And the refugees keep suffering.
Back to 1942 is graced with magnificent cinematography tempered by horrendous scenes of war result in a powerful and gripping tale of faith, perseverance and hope. The choices to be made are heart-breaking.
Released as Yi Jiu Si Er in the Mandarin language, Back to 1942 is based on Liu Zhenyun’s 2012 book, Remembering 1942. It was submitted to the Academy Awards as China’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, but wasn’t nominated. Produced on a ¥210-million (US$33.7 million) budget, Back to 1942 enjoyed a box office of ¥463 million (US$74.6 million).