Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 

Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Back to 1942 (一九四二, Feng Xiaogang, 2012)

back-to-1942-poster08Review of this (slightly stodgy) war time starvation drama up at UK Anime Network.

Feng Xiaogang might not exactly be a household name in the West but at home he’s one of China’s most bankable directors. Dubbed the Chinese Spielberg (perhaps a little reductively) he made his name with a series of crowd pleasing comedy films that had audiences queuing ‘round the block in expectation. In recent years, he’s moved away from the comedy genre in favour of big budget, Hollywood style dramas centred around historical events like the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake in Aftershock or the Civil War themed Assembly. Back to 1942 sees him step back even further in time to one of China’s great hidden tragedies, the great Henan famine of 1942.

In 1942 China was in a precarious political position as it faced the ongoing Japanese incursion and came under increasing pressure to align itself with Japan’s enemies as part of the wider global conflict. A serious drought could not have come at a worse time as ever dwindling resources were pulled in several directions at once. The story here concerns the landlord, Fan, who had originally a sizeable grain store set aside to feed his family and retainers. However, after his village is raided by bandits he too is forced to travel westwards in hope of finding better supplies. Along with his wife, pregnant daughter-in-law, daughter and servant as well as another family from the village he faces increasing hardship as he tries to find food to survive. Meanwhile an American journalist employed by TIME magazine has got wind of the story and is trying to get something done about it but to no avail. The government has the war effort as its top priority – what does it matter if a few peasants die as long as the army remains well fed.

Politically speaking, you can get away with talking about ‘unpleasant’ historical events assuming that they happened before the communist revolution. The finger here is pointed quite squarely at Chang Kai-shek and his nationalist government who are portrayed not only as unfeeling and self interested but also as ineffectual when it comes to the business of conducting war with the Japanese. Indeed, at once point Chang suggests simply ceding Henan to the Japanese rather go to the expense of defending this barren stretch of land. Though it is clear he is aware of the extent of the famine, he does little about it until eventually sending “emergency supplies” to “the disaster area” to try and alleviate the damage to his reputation and diplomatic relations with other powers when news of the famine finally reaches them after the conflict. Though the local governor appears genuinely concerned and does his best to get help for the starving people (even if it’s only to alleviate the ridiculous burdens placed on them to supply grain for the army even though there is none) he is hamstrung by the top heavy hierarchical system.

No help is going to come from the government for Fan and his family. They might have been bigwigs once but now they’re in the same boat as everyone else – forced on a virtual death march through the arid land desperately trying to find anywhere that will yield to them the resources to survive. Bodies litter the landscape as the weaker succumb to starvation, donkeys and pack horses are eaten and finally wives and children are bought and sold in the hope of surviving a few hours more. Make no bones about it, Back to 1942 is almost two and a half hours of pure misery as one tragic yet inevitable event follows on the next. Unfortunately, Feng has laid the gloom on a little thick in this understandably bleak tale. The tone never wavers and somehow the constant nature of its sorrows fail to engage as they take on a sadly predictable air. Despite the obvious potential of the story, there’s precious little actual drama and the performances fail to capture the audience’s sympathies as Fan & Co. forced into increasingly degrading acts trying to ensure their own survival.

However, Back to 1942 was an expensive production and you can see all of that money on screen as the battle and action sequences rival those of any Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever reservations there may be with the plotting, it always looks good and you could never accuse it of skimping out on its production design. The only minor criticism may be that the performances of non-Chinese actors feel significantly under rehearsed with Tim Robbins’ priest being the obvious example as he struggles with a strange accent and unclear position in the narrative. Adrien Brody fares better as the idealistic reporter but still fails to convince. The film doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself when it comes both to the role of religion and of other powers active in China at this time and though neither of those ideas are at the forefront of this film, they muddy the waters in ways other than intended by the filmmaker.
An often beautifully photographed film Back to 1942 is also a cold one and given its depressing subject matter something of a chore. The famine that struck the Henan region in 1942 and subsequent (non) reaction to it from the powers at be is indeed something that should be addressed and brought to light in the modern world but perhaps it doesn’t need to be in such a blunt fashion. The film is long, and wearing but ultimately fails to connect with the viewer in a non cynical way making its drawn out proceedings a little on the tedious side for most viewers. Those with a taste for sentimental melodramas with high production values may find a lot to enjoy with Back to 1942 but those who prefer a more nuanced drama will likely leave disappointed.