A curious blending of bombastic, CGI-driven disaster movie aesthetics wrought in the Hollywood style (with all the attendant Spielbergian sentimentality that entails), tacked onto a very finely stated, low-key human drama about grief and abandonment, that eventually becomes an epic trans-generational saga, “Aftershock” has been billed as China’s most expensive movie, and is the first film that the country has produced for the IMAX format. But director Feng Xiaogang presides over a work that feels almost like two completely different movies stitched together with just an overly emotive and manipulative orchestral score to connect them. The film’s sometimes hesitant attempts to negotiate the abyss between its reliance on the broad-brush film grammar of the Summer Blockbuster as imported from the west, and the urge to convey with sensitivity and taste something of the cultural flavour and historical development of China over the last thirty years, is one of the things that make this imperfect yet gripping tale such a fascinating spectacle to engage with.
“Aftershock” is initially set in 1976, on the eve of the devastating Tangshan earthquake that reportedly killed somewhere in the region of 240,000 people in North-eastern China’s Hebei region. The film tells the fictional but evocative story of one impoverished factory worker, his seamstress wife and their two children, male and female twins Fang Da and Fang Deng, who are caught up in the terrible cataclysmic event that sees the husband killed and the wife, Yuan Ni (Xu Fan) confronted with the most hideous Sophie’s Choice imaginable. When rescue worker volunteers locate her two children amongst the city ruins, wedged underneath a large concrete slab that can only be lifted to save one of them by crushing and killing the other, Yuan Ni is forced into making an on-the-spot, split second decision that will come to haunt her for the next thirty years of her life. Tradition shifts the balance in favour of saving the son, but unfortunately little Fang Deng, unable to utter a word in the suffocating darkness beneath the rubble, can hear every word as she is condemned by her mother to abandonment and death. Laid out in the wet mud and the rain among the naked corpses of the other victims alongside the body of her own father, Fang Deng does somehow survive though, and is rescued by the People’s Liberation Army and sent as an orphan to a survivors camp, where she is eventually adopted (by Jin Chen and Daoming Chen) and brought up under the name Wang Deng. Meanwhile her devastated mother and surviving brother have, if anything, an even more turbulent time of it. Because Fang Da lost one of his hands in the disaster, his outlook, as a cripple in Chinese society during this era and with the stigma that goes with it, is not good, and his mother has to struggle against family pressure just to be allowed to continue to look after him. However, the memory of the ‘death’ of her daughter will not go away, and Yuan Ni’s whole life is soon to be overshadowed by the aftershock of the dreadful decision she had to make on that fateful day.
The film begins with epic Hollywood widescreen crane-shot vistas and swelling orchestral cues, as the coming storm and the accompanying earthquake are signalled by the flight of thousands of dragon flies. The scene is rendered fantastical and otherworldly through the director’s overuse of CGI effects to depict the insects swarming across the industrialised city of Tangshan (as is a scene that shows unrealistic CGI fish flopping out of their tanks in someone’s home – both events that reportedly happened as a prelude to the quake hitting). The masochistic visual motifs that lie behind the show-stopping spectacle of cataclysm that has defined the post 9/11 Hollywood disaster movie this decade, are reproduced with impressive verisimilitude in the deafening, visually apocalyptic scene of devastation then unleashed on the viewer, as the entire region is shown collapsing on top of its bewildered inhabitants with the same CGI instigated bombast and booming, surround sound din of crashing debris and crumbling buildings, as one has been subjected to on countless occasions in the grandstanding spectacle movies of Hollywood. These artificial, video game aesthetics, here used to portray the quake, seem to suggest an entirely different kind of movie from the one we actually get from that moment on though. The scenes of destruction and horror immediately following it are unexpectedly arresting and disturbing, with the camera sweeping over a devastating, realistic landscape of mud, twisted limbs and broken bodies in the rubble, that turns into a desert of dust and despair come daylight, with the wailing survivors searching for their loved-ones among the ruins of their vanished homes.
Something of a dramatic misstep occurs, though, in the staging of what should be a hugely powerful scene where the distraught mother, Yuan Ni, is goaded into making a quick choice concerning which of her two children to save and which to let die by some absurdly blunt rescue workers who display such insensitivity and impatience that the scene would have actually almost become bleakly comical if it were not for the convincing performance of Xu Fan in the role as the mother, who manages to overcome the hyped up melodrama of it all. From here on though, the film becomes an entirely different proposition; the aftershock of the title refers to the emotional and psychological traumas wrought on all the central characters in the wake of the events of the movie’s first half-hour, and the rest of the film follows their progress and the parallel development of their lives, before a similar disaster in Sichuan in 2008 finally brings them together thirty years later.
We cut between the lives of the two children and their mother throughout the remainder of the film: Fang Deng throws herself into the study of medicine and tries to forget the pain of abandonment experienced beneath the rubble of Tangshan by blanking out her previous life completely. Fang Da is determined to become independent of his grief-stricken mother who looks upon caring for him as a penance for her inability to save her daughter. As the decades role by and Fang Da makes something of a success of himself in business, he offers to provide a more spacious and luxurious apartment for his widowed Mother, but she will not abandon her former home or move on emotionally in any way from the events of 1976, even rejecting a chance of a fulfilling relationship with a caring repair-shop worker out of respect for her husband’s sacrifice.
The lives of these characters are relatively ordinary and low-key but the film depicts them against the backdrop of a China that is just emerging from the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao Zedong and the beginnings of the Country’s economic transformation. The film actually uses CGI far more imaginatively here, to depict the metamorphosis of the region from its identity as an old-style industrial setting in the ‘70s to one of a booming location of towering glass skyscrapers, and the symbolism of the huge department store that gets erected on the site of the block of flats under which the two children were once trapped. There is a sense in which the separation of twin brother and sister and the estrangement of the mother can be seen to function as a kind of allegory for the internal political turmoil and disunity of the Country which began just at the time of the earthquake. Fang Deng’s tendency towards emotional isolation after the illegitimate birth of her own daughter eventually leads her to abandon the country, move to Vancouver, Canada and marry a Lawyer; Fang Da embraces the entrepreneurial spirit of the new China and starts a family of his own; while Yuan Ni remains stuck in the past, unable to accept that life has moved on. However the film doesn’t have anything overtly political to say about any of this background, although it is convincing in its onscreen depiction of the country’s transformation over the decades. This central section of the movie is slowly paced and sensitively played by an excellent cast and of course, it all leads up to the inevitable reconciliation of the three family members, ironically brought together by the disaster at Sichuan.
“Aftershock” is not really the fully-fledged disaster movie it appears to have been marketed as in the west; instead, it’s one-part action movie to two-parts relationships drama. The human story is what really dominates and motivates it, and despite a few ill-judged moments of melodrama, it largely succeeds in holding the attention thanks to some terrific performances from Jingchu Zhang as the adult Fang Deng and Xu Fan as her guilt-ridden mother. The UK DVD from Metrodome is a no thrills affair offering a nice 2.35:1 aspect presentation and robust 5.1 surround sound audio track, but no extras at all.