Reel Life review: 'Back to 1942'
It might have the most boring movie title in recent memory, but the Chinese historical epic "Back to 1942" traces a horrible time in Asian history when a famine hit China at the same time the Japanese invaded it during World War II.
Regrettably, the preview DVD I watched was visually compromised by huge letters across the screen that said "For Censorship Onl," which I interpreted to mean either "online" or "only." Either way, this proved to be a great distraction.
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So did the many dark scenes, rendered almost pitch black on my flat-screen TV to the point I couldn't tell what was happening and which character said what.
Added to that, some of the English subtitles of this Chinese production were so tiny I couldn't read them. Then, to top off the poor choices, the movie offered both Chinese and English subtitles along the bottom of the screen, making it even more difficult to emotionally access the dramatic sequences.
Still, I stuck with this production, which follows a North Henan landlord named Fan (Zhang Guoli) as he leads his starving family to the south with thousands of other starving refugees. It's pretty bleak stuff, especially when a pregnant daughter bears her baby on the road and begs that he be killed immediately, as there is no food.
Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody stars as a Time magazine photographer whose photos of cannibalism and wild dogs eating humans force the underequipped, uncaring Chinese government officials to do something to help the refugees, if not to cover themselves from international criticism.
"Back to 1942," directed by Feng "Aftershocks" Xiaogang, is a brutally candid depiction of starvation, government ineffectiveness and the cheapening of life. Yet, this proves to be a rather turgid drama spread across a sprawling historical canvas so large that it lacks the intimate humanity necessary for it to hit us as hard as it wants to.
And the too-dark scenes, giant "Censorship" letters, tiny subtitles and two decks of dialogue translations don't help at all.
"Back to 1942" opens at the Evanston Century 12. Not rated; for mature audiences. 146 minutes. ★ ½
Reel Life review: "A Werewolf Boy"
There's something liberating about Sung-hee Jo's South Korean fantasy-romance-thriller "A Werewolf Boy" in how it mashes together disjunctive genres and manages to pull it all off with amazing sincerity and aplomb.
A middle-aged Korean grandmother returns to her rural childhood home and instantly lapses into a flashback from 47 years earlier when as a young girl named Soon-Yi (Park Bo-yeong) she becomes close to a feral boy, Chul-Soo (Joong Ki Song), adopted by her kind and caring mother in the woods.
Chul-Soo has a voracious appetite and no manners. So like an Asian Annie Sullivan, Soon-Yi teaches him to eat properly and take care of himself.
Chul-Soo doesn't reveal his true nature until after a local rich boy and his droogies try to abuse poor Soon-Yi. (Hey, this is called "A Werewolf Boy," remember?)
Even though you think you know where this story is headed, you're wrong. It boldly does what American audiences don't particularly like: leap from horror into science fiction, into a domestic drama and finally into a classic tragic romance.
As crazy as "A Werewolf Boy" gets -- and we're talking crazy, nutzoid, cracked-out-of-your-skull weird -- the movie ends on an unexpectedly emotional lump-in-your-throat note, precipitated by young Soon-Yi's off-handed comment, "Wait for me. I'll come back for you," a promise that holds more power than a little girl could possibly imagine.
"A Werewolf Boy" opens at the AMC Showplace in Niles. Not rated: for mature audiences. 122 minutes. ★ ★ ½
Love goes Hollywood
Join me and film historian Raymond Benson as Dann & Raymond's Movie Club presents "Romance Goes to the Movies: Hollywood's Great Love Stories," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights. We'll have clips from lovey-dovey movies such as "Love Story," "Romeo and Juliet," "Wuthering Heights," "The Way We Were" plus many others. Free admission! Go to ahml.info.
Reel Life film notes:
• Happy 40th anniversary, Mr. Godfather! The Chicago Film Critics Association presents the digitally remastered classic "The Godfather" at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Muvico Theaters, 9701 Bryn Mawr Ave., Rosemont. It'll be presented in 4K Sony digital format. CFCA critics Mark Dujsik and Nick Allen will host and moderate a brief discussion after the movie. Go to muvico.com.
• A free showing of the animated comedy "Arthur Christmas" is scheduled at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Charlestowne 18 Theatre, 3740 East Main St. in St. Charles. Go to classiccinema.com for details.
• Wait, there's even more "Arthur Christmas." The movie will also be shown free at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Classic Cinemas' Cinema 12 Theatre, 100 Besinger Drive, Carpentersville. Go to classiccinema.com.
• That Arthur Christmas sure gets around. There will be yet another free screening of this movie at 10 a.m. Saturday at Classic Cinemas' Elk Grove Village Theatre, 1050 Arlington Heights Road, Elk Grove Village. Go to classiccinema.com.
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!