[This post is cross-published at Parallax View.]
The buzz of dragonflies, thousands of them racing through Tangshan with the speed of a roaring railroad engine, fills the opening moments of Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, his epic story of the two devastating earthquakes that assaulted Tangshan, China. Based on a real-life historical detail of the 1976 earthquake, the unsettling swarm manages to both pay tribute to the mythology of the event known to local Chinese audiences and create the ominous apprehension of something literally earthshaking to come for audiences unfamiliar with the history.
Currently the most popular domestic blockbuster in Chinese history and China’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards, the 2010 drama is a crowd pleaser to be sure, but a respectful one. Based on a novel by Zhang Ling, Aftershock is no attempt at documentary or docudrama—melodrama abounds in the fictional story of a family literally torn apart by the devastation of the earthquake and the “Sophie’s Choice” faced by a suddenly widowed mother now forced to choose which of her two children will live in a rescue attempt that will sacrifice the other—but neither is it a disaster movie, at least by conventional definitions of the genre. The spectacle of destruction is reserved for the first quake, which hits in the hush of pre-dawn dusk, and the special effects used to illustrate the level of damage it wreaked on the classic Soviet-style architecture of massive brick buildings. Cameras trace the rips through monolithic walls and watch as structures tear in half, massive walls of brick and concrete falling in on themselves or tipping into the streets where citizens attempt to flee. Without commentary or criticism, Feng shows us just how and why this quake took so many lives (an estimated 240,000 in a city of around 1 million).
And that’s it for spectacle of physical destruction. The rest of the film is, as the title suggests, about the reverberations of the disaster, with the story of one family symbolically standing in for the loss of an entire population. Mother Li Yuanni (Xu Fan) never stops mourning her dead husband and daughter and never forgives herself for the girl’s death. Fang Da (Li Chen), the son who lives but loses an arm in the disaster, grows up under the pressure of all of her hopes while he worries over the way she (in her grief and guilt) denies herself the smallest happiness or companionship. And the daughter, Fang Deeng (Zhang Jingchu), carried by her hysterical mother to a field of corpses and gently given over to death, miraculously lives, surviving the physical damage but not the memory of her mother choosing to save her brother over her. She feigns a loss of memory rather than confess even to herself this emotionally crippling moment when she’s adopted by a childless couple in the Red Army, loyal soldiers to the state and loving, intent parents of this lovely but damaged little girl.
The shadow of the 2008 Tangshan earthquake falls over Aftershock—it was so recent that it couldn’t be otherwise—and sure enough it bookends the drama in the final act. Feng doesn’t offer a recreation this time around (as much out of respect as restraint, I assume) but the combination of TV news footage and the scenes of rescue workers in the rubble of the aftermath is all we need to know of the physical devastation. We’ve seen how this city was rebuilt as an impressive modern industrial city in the intervening years, all of it leveled in another disaster. Feng’s story is of the human devastation, the lives lost, the families shattered, the emotional aftershocks of the survivors. For that he resorts to a classic form of melodrama familiar to Chinese cinema and reminiscent of classic Hollywood dramas. This is a weepie, all right, and full of the sentimentality that we tend to dismiss as hokey overkill, but Feng uses it as a respectful way to explore loss and pay tribute to the lives lost and damaged in the two quakes.
Feng Xiaogang, who previously made the handsome The Banquet (the Chinese pageant take on Hamlet), hasn’t the grace or subtlety of Zhang Yimou, but the melodramatic complications and contrivances are not far removed from the narrative twists of Zhang’s 1994 epic To Live. Which is not to equate the films, merely observe the tradition. Aftershock is an admirable and affecting film that purposely avoids politics and social commentary (even the death of Chairman Mao, which closely followed the earthquake, is presented as merely another devastating national event in this narrative) to tell a story of enormous loss in personal terms. These figures may stand in for an entire nation but they are individual characters with their own, unique journeys that, quite fittingly, bring them back to the scene of their greatest devastation. What could have been a precious, contrived moment of melodramatic excess plays out as an act of duty and service, not to the state but to home and family and neighbor. Given everything they’ve been through, it’s not just satisfying, it’s necessary, and their healing is well earned.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.