An often harrowing study of the 1942 Henan Province famine during which a staggering 3 million people starved to death, Feng's movie has all the hallmarks of an epic, with its sweeping cinematography, a cast of hundreds of extras trudging through a bleak snowy landscape during scenes of the refugees' exodus, as well as spectacular special effects to illustrate the devastating impact of the Japanese bombing raids on the refugee column. There is even a smattering of dark gallows humour to relieve some of the tension, used just sparingly enough to never appear even remotely disrespectful.
At the heart of the movie, however, are the intimate, personal stories of how the tragedy breaks down the social divisions between wealthy landowner Fan Dianyuan, (played by Zhang Guoli in a beautifully measured performance), his servant Shuang Zhu, and his tenant Hua Zhi (played by Zhang's real-life son Zhang Mo and Feng's wife Xu Fan) whose scenes together are some of the most moving in the film. Chen Daoming, best known to international audiences as the emperor in Zhang Yimou's Hero, is also very effective as the chillingly detached 'Generalissimo' Chiang Kai-shek, whilst Adrien Brody is highly credible as the passionate Time war correspondent Theodore H. White, the man who first broke the horrific news of what was going on in Henan in the West.
The film was extremely well received by the Rome audience and was met with long and rapturous applause and a standing ovation for the actors and director who appeared visibly moved by the warmth of the film's reception.
Watch the video of the final applause in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).