Director: Feng Xiaogang
Cast: Lu Yi, Zhang Jingchu, Chen Daoming, Li
Bing Bing, Chen Jin, Xu Fan, Zhang Guoqiang
RunTime: 2 hrs 15 mins
Released By: GV and Scorpio East Pictures
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence)
Official Website: http://aftershock.hbpictures.com/
Opening Day: 29 July 2010
Tangshan Earthquake, 28 July 1976.
When a mother is informed by the rescue team that, as her
7-year old twins are buried under the debris close to each
other, digging one out would result in further collapse of
the wreckage on the other, she is forced to make the most
difficult decision of her life. As the clock ticked away,
she finally ended her struggle and chose to save the boy,
and though heartbroken, she had no idea her decision was overheard
by the daughter. Deemed as a dead person, the little girl
miraculously survived and was rescued after being buried for
days. Suffering from the emotional shock of the disaster and
the painful memory of her mother’s choice, she refused
to reveal who she was. She was adopted by a young couple and
later moved to the US, but shadowed by the traumatic experience
from her childhood; she forever remained emotionally closed
the Sichuan earthquake takes over 80,000 lives in 2008, she
volunteers to join the rescue team and returns to her homeland,
China. As she witnesses the tribulations people go through
when a natural disaster takes place, she finally unlocks the
pain she had felt all these years and finds forgiveness. She
finally reunites with the mother and twin brother she had
parted from after 32 years. A human drama about finding forgiveness,
‘Aftershock’ depicts not only the fatal tragedy
that is brought on by natural disaster of great levels but
also the strength and courage that is demonstrated when we
are in face of extreme and devastating situations.
Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock”- based on the Tangshan earthquake on July 28, 1976 that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and claimed 240,000 people- isn’t your typical disaster movie. It isn’t out to wow you with the scale of the disaster- indeed, there is no need, for the numbers speak for themselves. It isn’t out to showcase the latest special effects- Hollywood has done enough of that with “2012”. What it does is paint an intimate portrait of how a family devastated by the quake attempts to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives.
Dad (played by Zhang Guoqiang) is a factory worker, Mom (played by Feng’s own wife, Xu Fan) is a seamstress, and Fang Deng and Fang Dan are their kids, one boy and one girl, and twins for that matter. The quake leaves Dad dead, and Mom caught in an impossible dilemma. Fang Deng and Fang Dan have been pinned under one giant concrete block, and the rescuers tell her she has to sacrifice one in order to save the other. She chooses the son, unaware that her daughter did not perish.
Fang Deng is eventually adopted by a childless couple, both husband and wife in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who helped out in the subsequent rescue effort. She grows up as Wang Deng (played by Zhang Jingchu), but her new identity doesn’t erase the scar of her mother’s decision to let her die. Meanwhile, Fang Dan grows up as a slightly impetuous teenager who leaves Tangshan to find his own fortune in the neighbouring bigger cities with his friends. Even after Fang Dan returns a successful businessman with his wife and newborn son, Mom refuses to leave her Tangshan home- she believes that she needs to guide the souls of her late husband and daughter back.
Unfolding over a period of 30 years, Feng leads his audience closely into the parallel lives of Fang Deng and Fang Dan- until the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which brings them back together. The events of their lives in between these 30 years aren’t particularly remarkable- Fang Deng or Fang Dan don’t become some national heroes after their ordeal- and very often it feels like they feel like they could have happened to any other person. But it is precisely because of their unassuming quality that makes them all the more credible and poignant.
Indeed, the film portrays Fang Deng and Fan Dang as no more than ordinary citizens trying to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives, albeit forever imprinted with the trauma of the disaster. Theirs is a story of resilience and a call of hope, not just for the people of Tangshan who survived the quake that year, but also for the people out there whose lives and families have been wrecked by disasters, to stand up and stand strong. Of course, coming two years after the even more devastating Sichuan earthquake, its voice is especially resounding for a country still reeling from the magnitude of the calamity.
Feng’s film needs to be seen in this light- it is a fictional story set against real events- and therefore threads a tightrope between fact and fiction, a tightrope of wounded hearts and lives. Kudos to Feng for accomplishing a film that is respectful but never condescending, empathetic but never manipulative, so that while the subject matter may be heavy handed, his film always finds the right balance to give the proceedings both gravity and optimism.
Still, one can’t help but feel that Feng, better known for his hit romantic comedies like “If You Are the One”, is slightly out of his league. Despite generous help from visual effects experts including Lord of the Rings’ Weta to recreate the quake, Feng lets these scenes unfold with little continuity, so the raison d’être for this to be China’s first IMAX film becomes non sequitur. He also films the aftermath of the quake with misty-eyed sentimentality- using slow-mo shots and a mournful score- that threatens to become overly maudlin.
It is therefore a good thing that “Aftershock” soon moves away from being a disaster film to a film about the people moving on from the disaster. Feng Xiaogang has always displayed a careful attention to the characters and their relationships in his films, and once again demonstrates that flair here in creating characters that his audience can not only identify, but also empathise with in their joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations, hopes and anxieties. When Fang Deng and Fang Dan are finally reunited in a tearful reunion, only the hardest of hearts will not be moved.
(It doesn’t try to be China’s answer to “2012”- instead, this is an intimate portrait of resilience and hope in the aftermath of life's unexpected calamities that turns out immensely moving)
Review by Gabriel Chong