[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).