Aftershock 唐山大地震 (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen) [2010] • China

This isn't a perfect film but its story is so moving that any shortcomings in the telling can easily be overlooked. When an earthquake hits Tangshan in the Hebei Province, China, in 1976 at about 3:30 in the morning, a married couple is ... well, they are having sex in the back of their truck, but that's not important. The couple rush home to rescue their sleeping children. When the mother attempts to run into the collapsing building the father throws her aside and rushes in and the building falls on him and kills him. The children are alive but buried beneath the rubble in such a way that saving one of them would crush the other. The mother has to make a choice. After much weeping and wringing of hands she chooses to save her son. Her daughter hears her mother make the choice. Ouch! The daughter is left for dead but miraculously survives. She's so hurt by her mother's decision she refuses to identify herself and is taken to an orphanage where she is eventually adopted by a young couple who were part of the People's Liberation Army's rescue team.

The first twenty minutes of the film are all about the earthquake and CGI. After that it becomes pure drama, spanning thirty two years, with some haphazard scenes cutting in from time to time. The young boy grows up to be a successful businessman and the young girl grows up to almost be a doctor but marries a foreigner and moves to Canada instead. The  boy doesn't know his sister is alive and the girl, despite the urgings of her foster father, has no intention of reuniting with her brother, or her mother. But the film is less about them and more about the mother. She is the film's emotional centerpiece.

The mother suffers long and hard for the decision she made and for the loss of her husband. She refuses to leave Tangshan because she wants to be there when the deceased return to her. She lives in a tent for a while and moves into a modest apartment when the family home is not rebuilt. Every year she visits a ceremonial site of mourning and gives her husband and daughter directions to her new place of residence.

The film builds to a crescendo culminating in 2008 with the earthquake in Sichuan. The brother and sister both go there and join the Tangshan Rescue Team as volunteers. The film drops into a low gear and downplays the moments when they meet each other and the daughter goes home to see her mother. Then there's all this tension about who should be more sorry, the mother for her decision, or the daughter for condemning and causing her mother to suffer thirty two years for that decision.

All of the performances, except the guy who plays the daughter's foreigner husband, are top notch, especially Xu Fan (the director's real life wife) as the mother. There are all kinds of wonderful and heartbreaking scenarios touching on the nature and loyalties of family. The boy's paternal grandmother wants to take custody of him because now that her own son is dead he is her last bit of male family blood. When the boy becomes a successful businessman he wants to move his mother into a nice new apartment, partly for his own notion of her happiness and partly for not wanting to be perceived as someone who is not taking care of his mother. What loyalties and affections should the daughter have towards her foster parents when she becomes an adult? And, of course, what about the daughter's decision to not let her blood family know she survived the earthquake?

I was moved to tears several times during the film but more from just thinking about the material than from any melodramatic presentation of it. Aftershock has a disjointed narrative from time to time and could probably be improved with a second round of editing. Several scenes appear to be part of something larger that got cut out, and a few scenes seem irrelevant. The director's decision to downplay the climax as long as he can is a little disappointing but it fits with the repressed emotional level of the rest of the film after the initial earthquake sequence which, as we are reminded of in a slightly awkward memorial ending that closes the film, is supposed to be its heart.

Aftershock is the first iMax film produced in China and I have no response to that fact. It has structural weaknesses but it's a magnificent and heart-rending story with a lot of legs. Highly recommended to those who like that kind of thing.

Director: Xiaogang Feng
Starring: Jingchu Zhang, Fan Xu, Chen Li


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