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Aftershock: Tangshan as a Family Affair

Posted on Aug 2, 2010 4:00pm by Dan Edwards

Warning – this post contains spoilers

Recent history is not a realm China's commercial filmmakers are generally too keen to touch for reasons we don’t need to spell out here. As far as I'm aware, Feng Xiaogang's new blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshan dadizhen) is the first Chinese feature to look at one of the 20th century's worst natural disasters, the 7.8 magnitude quake in 1976 that flattened the northern city of Tangshan and officially killed 242,000 people (although some claim the real death toll was much higher). I was curious to see how Feng handled what remains a highly contentious period in Chinese history in such a mainstream production. The answer, predictably, is that he doesn’t really handle it – he simply ignores it.


Like last year's Founding of a Republic, Aftershock remolds China's traumatic national history into something more palatable and familiar – a family melodrama. Where Founding treats China's political leadership as a figurative extended family (with Chiang Kai-shek as the misguided but still essentially kind-hearted uncle), Aftershock revolves around a literal family, whose story both personalizes (and depoliticizes) the moment of the Tangshan disaster.

The brief glimpse we get of pre-quake life in 1976 makes the period seem almost bucolic. There is nothing to really distinguish the filmic 1976 from today's China, except for a “simpler” less technologically advanced way of life. We see actress Xu Fan as mother-of-two Li Yuanni, happily walking around in Tanghshan's summer heat wearing skimpy shorts and a singlet – hardly a realistic portrayal of China's conservative sartorial tastes circa 1976. When the quake hits, her and her husband are enjoying a carefree late-night romp in the back of her husband's truck. Beyond the odd Mao slogan in the background, politics appears to play no part in daily life.


The protracted quake sequence that hits about 20 minutes into the film is Aftershock's most effective moment, when Feng Xiaogang's big budget special effects are given full play. In this sense it reminded me of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which similarly opens with a visceral effects-heavy sequence before descending into a very conventional drama.

Nothing can quite match a big budget movie seen in the cinema for replicating the impact of large-scale, chaotic events, be it the Normandy landings or a massive earthquake. I've never experienced a real tremor, but Feng manages to convey the way these disasters create a topsy-turvy world in seconds as apparently solid buildings crumble and the earth literally cracks open at your feet. The sequence is terrifying, and the shots of fleeing residents being struck down by flying debris as entire apartment blocks fall give some insight into just how gruesome the fate of earthquake victims can be.


The remainder of Aftershock deals with the reverberations of the disaster for Li Yuanni's family over the next three decades. The highly contrived plot revolves around a choice Li has to make on the day of the quake, when she finds her two children buried under a concrete slab. Rescuers say she must chose to save one, since lifting the slab will crush the other. After an anguished few minutes she chooses her son, but in the next scene we see her clutching her daughter's “corpse” – which incidentally bears no sign of crushing – and begging the child for forgiveness. Unbelievably, it turns out the child is still alive and she later wakes up amongst a line of corpses before being scooped up by a passing solider. Are we really to believe Li wouldn’t check whether her daughter was still breathing before leaving her in a row of bodies?

If you can get past this initial contrivance, most of the rest of the film is a passable melodrama featuring some nice performances, particularly from the PLA officer who adopts Li's abandoned daughter. The life trajectories of Li's son and lost daughter dramatize the changes in Chinese society since 76, again in strictly personalized and de-politicized terms.

It wasn’t until Aftershock reached 2008 that the melodramatic plot really started to lose me. As news of the Sichuan quake flashes around the world, Li's lost daughter, who by this time is married and living in Canada, rushes back to China to help with relief efforts. Meanwhile Li's son (now a millionaire through an unspecified “business” down south) also heads into the disaster zone with a Tangshan volunteer team. You can pretty much guess the rest of the story.

Aftershock certainly isn't a challenging film, beyond the rather gruesome nature of the disaster it depicts. Nor is it a particularly honest film. Problems, ambiguities and unpalatable complications in China's recent past are neatly airbrushed out to show a society that has suffered greatly through “hand of god” calamities, but that has overcome these cruel turns of fate to build an ever-improving, ever-more-prosperous China. It's a vision of the past 30 years that meshes nicely with the contemporary emphasis on nationalism and “looking to the future” rather than dwelling on the divisions of the past.

Unless you’re desperate to experience the quake sequence in all its IMAX glory, I wouldn’t bother shelling out the extra cash required to see Aftershock on an IMAX screen. Ninety percent of the film is a very conventionally filmed melodrama that would gain nothing from being blown up to the size of a multistory building.

Aftershock is screening in Chinese with English subtitles at most cinemas around town, including Sanlitun Mega Box (screening times here) and BC MOMA (screening times here).

You can catch it in all its Imax glory at Wanda Shijingshan (3rd floor, No. B18, Shijingshan Lu,  Shijingshan District, 石景山区石景山路乙18号万达广场3层) or at UME International Cineplex.

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