Films by sure-handed director Feng Xiaogang are usually a big commercial success, be they romantic comedies, period epics or his 2010 film "Aftershock" about a family torn apart by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.
His latest offering - another venture into disaster films and his darkest yet - is "Back to 1942" about the epic famine in Henan Province where drought meets warfare, government denial, greed and corruption.
Released late last month, it's disturbing and thought-provoking. Not only does it depict suffering and savagery, but also the factors behind the famine and exodus that claimed at least 3 million lives.
Landowner and tenant find themselves on the same primitive level, distinctions erased, scrambling for food. A mother sells herself for grain to feed her starving children. Japanese warplanes strafe roads packed with refugees. Bodies litter the route, dogs eat corpses and much worse goes on.
It's not exactly holiday fare, and its release just two weeks ago may not have been ideal timing, especially given plenty of competing upbeat films. Feng says he knew he was gambling on the grim epic in the first place, and hoping that the grim subject matter and philosophical questions would not scare off loyal fans.
But compared with "Aftershock," considered a huge success and China's best disaster movie, "Back to 1942" is a box-office disappointment. Despite the aesthetics, impressive camera work, spectacles of chaos and migration, the film is far less popular than expected.
To date, the 210-million-yuan (US$33.6 million) film has only taken around 300 million yuan in ticket sales around China - less than half of Feng's hope for 700 million yuan.
Some observers suggested mood appeal in the Mayan-calendar doomsday and catastrophe predicted for Friday, but this famine flick falls short. Many movie-goers say they prefer fantasy or light-hearted fare to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
Many young people don't see the point in Feng's film about the agonizing experience. Why make it? They ask.
People are more familiar with the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which claimed 240,000 lives, and the so-called "three years of natural disasters" from 1959 to 1961, which claimed millions of lives. "The famine of 1942 is too far back. Audiences don't connect with it," says an audience member Jasmine Chen.
The film's violent and gruesome scenes are controversial. Wu Xiaobo, who watched it with her boyfriend, was distraught by watching starving refugees eat a cat.
"The scene lingers. My boyfriend and I are pet lovers and we lost our appetite," Wu says. And that's not the worst scene.
Nevertheless, making this epic has been a dream for Feng. The director with the golden touch is famous for romantic comedies such as "If You Are the One 2" (2010) and "If You Are the One" (2008), as well as "Assembly" (2007), which is compared with Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), and the historic martial arts drama "The Banquet" (2006). His light-hearted, sometimes satirical fare, as well as blockbusters, have grossed more than 2 billion yuan nationally in recent years.
Based on Liu Zhenyun's 1992 novel "Remembering 1942," the film graphically depicts the famine in central China caused by drought and locusts, made worse by the Japanese invasion, warfare, diversion of food to Chinese troops, official denial of famine and failure to provide assistance. It came too little and too late after the Time magazine journalist Theodore White, played by Adrien Brody, exposed to the world the horrors of starvation.
The Washington Post said that like "Aftershock," "Back to 1942' shows the director's mastery of chaotic spectacle, massed human motion and elegant camera movements. Both films demonstrate his tendencies toward glibness and sentimentality. Starvation and subtlety may be an unlikely pairing, but Feng's historical horror show would actually be more moving if it were less openly emotional.
In the face of death
Still, it has impact and messages on many levels.
The film centers on the sufferings of two families - that of Fan, a former landlord, and that of Xialu, Fan's tenant. As they flee their home in search of food, the situation gets even worse with the Japanese invasion, the weak Nationalist government, as well as greedy and corrupt officials. Character is revealed in the face of death.
Most scenes were shot in remote villages. Director Feng, cast and crew had to endure some hunger, thirst and harsh conditions.
Feng calls it one of his toughest but most rewarding films. "Our nation is characterized by tremendous sufferings in history. To know where we come from helps us understand where we should go," he said in an early interview.
Feng knew it was a risky venture. "Shooting this kind of film is like a gamble, challenging and uncertain for any famous filmmaker," he recently blogged. "At stake is the large fan base I built up over the years."
Despite its lack of commercial success, many people have been moved, and middle school teacher Zhou Bei says the film gave her fresh insight into both the fragility and strength of life. She cites a scene in which a farmer sells herself for a handful of millet to feed her children.
"Disaster is a cruel but very truthful test of humanity," she says. "Some people lose their dignity while others can do extraordinary things."
"The film helps me understand why many middle-aged and elderly Chinese prefer saving money in the bank," says Jeffrey Qiu, an office worker. "Even after living in comfort or affluence for many years, they don't feel secure. Disaster has left them scarred."
The Hollywood disaster blockbuster emerged in the 1970s and the genre is very mature and popular in China for spectacular and realistic visual effects, motional, well-told stories and heroism. "Titanic" (1997), "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) and "2012" (2009) all saw great commercial success here.
But making a good disaster film is a challenge for Chinese filmmakers. "Sailing in Fog" (1957) about an accident onboard a cruise from Shanghai to Ningbo is considered the first. Since then many films have been made about typhoons, airline disasters, avalanches and other catastrophes, but the response has been poor because of inept storytelling and visual effects.
Famous directors have tried their hand. The 1937 Nanjing Massacre is a familiar subject, as in Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" (2009) and Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" (2011).
China's disaster films also lack philosophic depth, says critic Li Tian.
"The filmmaker must be very strong in philosophical thinking and sensitive to the influence and long-term trauma of the catastrophe," Li says. "He must have the courage to face up to our past and present."
Gu Xiaoming, sociologist and professor at Fudan University, praises "Back to 1942" for portraying human weakness and inadequacy in the face of disasters and moral dilemmas. It defies stereotypical heroism, he says.
"People's anxieties and fears about the end of world exist throughout history," Gu says. "Rapid economic and scientific development cannot prevent a sense of insecurity. The only thing more frightening than a disaster is people's growing selfishness and indifference toward others. A good disaster film always sparks reflection about our current situation."
Notable Chinese disaster films
"Crash Landing" (2000)
Inspired by the first widely known emergency airliner landing in China, the film by Zhang Jianya is one of the first domestic productions that generated wide interest in the disaster film genre. Made on a spectacular scale, it emphasizes the value of team work in the face of crisis.
"City of Life and Death" (2009)
Also called "Nanking! Nanking!," the film is shot from the point of view of a Japanese soldier. It took director Lu Chuan four years to make the black-and-white film using hand-held cameras that create a newsreel documentary feel.
The first Chinese IMAX movie grossed 660 million yuan and set a box-office record that was soon broken by an action comedy. Considered to be China's most successful disaster movie, it revolves around a mother and daughter who rebuild their relationship 32 years after separation during the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.