Aftershock (2010)

Director: Feng Xiaogang
Plot: Based on the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 that took the lives of 240,000 people.

Genre: Drama
Awards: -
Runtime: 135min
Rating: PG for disturbing scenes.

Aftershock, a film that marries Chinese dramatic storytelling and Western digital visual effects, is one of the most expensive films to be made in China. And it is shaping up to be a disaster epic worthy of inclusion into the top tiers of the genre. Feng Xiaogang, whose recent works include A World Without Thieves (2004), The Banquet (2006), Assembly (2007), and If You Are the One (2008) directs a capable cast including Xu Fan and Zhang Jingchu to quite fine performances.
Aftershock is a disaster film with a heart. That is quite an anomaly, since disaster pictures are mostly soulless exercises in visual effects filmmaking. Think Deep Impact (1998), The Core (2003), 2012 (2009), to name just a few. Nonetheless, the anomaly that is Aftershock is welcome. Not since Cameron’s Titanic (1997) has a genre meant to titillate the senses been known to force one to reach for a hankie.
Aftershock tells the true story of the plight of a mother (Xu) torn between saving her son or daughter as a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hits Tangshan in the early morning on July 28, 1976. More than 240 000 perished under the rubble in less than a minute, with more than 160 000 severely injured (statistics taken from 20th Century History). The mother could only save one child, as lifting one side of the heavy slab of concrete to free one would mean crushing the other. She makes the heartbreaking decision to save her son, which is overheard by her still alive daughter.
Feng’s film is not so much about the tragedy of Tangshan, 1976, but the consequences of that one decision forced upon a helpless mother. Unbeknownst to her and her son, the daughter miraculously survives (the sequence in which she “wakes up from the dead” and wanders about, seeing death and devastation all around her, pays homage to the “girl in red” in Spielberg’s Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993)), and is adopted by a couple from the People’s Liberation Army. It is not until another deadly earthquake at Sichuan 32 years later that fate brings the son and daughter together again in a chance meeting during rescue efforts. And in the film’s most tearjerking sequence, the daughter returns to Tangshan to see her mother again.
It is almost a given that to see Aftershock is to allow your tears to flow. Weep for the faceless victims of Tangshan, and weep for the separation and reunification of a family whose story Feng has sufficiently (but not quite masterfully) told. There is no doubt that Feng’s film has touched me as it will continue to touch many others. However, it remains conventional with the director’s trademark wry humor lost in the mire of sadness.
Furthermore, the performances by Xu and Zhang (especially toward the very end with the cemetery sequence) seem slightly exaggerated, losing the naturalistic tone of the last two hours. The expected melodramatic conclusion turns into an overly theatrical expression of guilt and regret in which each shot lingers on for a few seconds too long.
Aftershock is a decent film, and an excellent one by genre standards. Even though Feng’s handling of the film may feel at times artificial and devoid of creative input, it remains to be a film that retains its power because of its historical significance and its symbolistic portrayal of the psychological and emotional struggles of a family (or for that matter, any family) that has been torn apart by a natural disaster.
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