SHANGHAI – Blockbuster Chinese director Feng Xiaogang on Sunday unveiled the trailer for his upcoming film Remembering 1942, the 210 million yuan ($33 million) true story-based disaster epic that took 18 years to bring to the screen, at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
The Huayi Brothers film, slated for a late-2012 release, stars Feng regulars Xu Fan (Aftershock) and Zhang Hanyu (Assembly) and boasts the performances of two Academy Award-winning actors -- Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody, who play a Catholic priest and an American journalist, respectively. Revolving around the true events of a devastating famine that took more than 3 million lives in China’s Henan province at the tail end of Japan’s invasion of China during WWII, the film’s depiction of the scale of misery and suffering was revealed by a line uttered by Brody’s character in the trailer, “I saw a dog eating a man.”
Depicting the large-scale exodus of refugees fleeing from the draught-wrecked area, the film featured scenes of more than 2,000 people in its re-creations of the massiveness of “a river of people with no end in sight.”
Feng, who adapted with renowned and best-selling Chinese author Liu Zhengyun the latter’s 1993 novel, said, “Tim Robbins told me after he read the script that ‘this is a story of the darkest of human impulses and the brightest of hope.’ What I learned from this story is that we are a nation of refugees that had survived numerous disasters. From this story, we can learn what we were as a nation, so that we know how to go forward.”
Author Liu said Feng portrayed in the film the dark humor in the Chinese national character in reaction to disasters.
“There are numerous disaster films around the world, but the attitudes of how nations face disasters are different," Liu said. "Dying, the Chinese people tend not to ask who killed us. For example, if I’m starving to death I wouldn’t try to find out who caused it, but would rather think of Feng, because he died two days earlier, so I came out on top because I’ve outlasted him. As a director, Feng managed to inject this kind of bitter humor into a disaster film.”
Huayi Brothers has been attached to the project since its inception in 1993, and saw the proposed budget ballooned from 30 million yuan to 210 million yuan, a seven-fold increase. But Huayi Brothers Media Corp. president James Wang said he and his company were “honored” to back in the project.
“This story was the untold history not found in history books that would prompt us to re-evaluate our lives," he said. "Many of us don't understand the meaning of physical hunger anymore, but we’re in a state of mental starvation.”
Feng and Liu also headlined as panelists at the “Tell a Chinese Story to the World” Shanghai International Film Festival industry forum, where Liu called the title of the forum “the whimper of a weak nation.” Liu, who, in a display of the nationalistic self-flagellation Chinese intellectuals are often prone to, elaborated: “It’s as if we’re trying to plead the world to listen. But in the U.S., filmmakers tell American stories to their own people, the rest of the world just happened to listen in.”
However, the topic of China’s attempt to reach out to the international marketplace is particularly relevant to Chinese filmmakers at the time when the expansion of Hollywood film quota poses a bigger threat to homegrown fares in the domestic market.
Feng, as one of the most commercially successful Chinese filmmakers in Chinese history whose films has accumulated to nearly 2 billion yuan (US$314 million) at the box office, said, “It’s not a matter of whether we can tell a story to the world, but a matter of whether the world wants to listen to our stories.”
Feng characterized the lack of box-office clout of Chinese films in overseas market as compared with Hollywood products as “the foreign audience might say they don’t understand a Chinese story, but in fact they are not willing to understand a Chinese story. The reality is that the world is not interested. Because they might think, ‘you’re a weak nation; therefore your language, or the things you want to say, don’t interest me.'”
“But when Hollywood makes films,” Feng continued, “it’s not their primary concern how the Chinese audience might receive their stories. They only care whether the American audience understand; if you don’t, that’s your own problem.”
Feng, whose rants are legendary, cited at the press conference his previous box-office successes such as Assembly (2007) and Aftershock (2010) -- which took 260 million and 670 million yuan at the Chinese box office, respectively -- as alternatives to the cookie-cutter action historical epics that flood the Chinese film industry.
“There are many routes to success in the Chinese films industry," he said. "Even when there is an influx of Hollywood films into the market, we can still find our own way. Many filmmakers tend to blame Hollywood or the censors if their films don’t make money; and next, they’d blame the audience, and it’d only lead to self-destruction.”