Director: Xiaogang Feng.
Release Date: 27th December 2010
Review: Adam Wing.
Human drama takes precedence over special effects in Xiaogang Feng’s memorial to the 240,000 victims of the Tangshan earthquake. On July 28, 1976, a massive earthquake struck Tangshan, China, devastating the city in just 23 seconds.
Feng Xiaogang (The Banquet, Assembly) sure knows his audience, and Aftershock has gone on to become the highest grossing local film in Chinese history, cementing Feng's status as the go-too guy for blockbuster entertainment. Aftershock was the first Chinese film made for the IMAX giant-screen format, enlisting the service of special effects teams from both the US and Korea.
The opening act is quite possibly the most enticing segment of this over-reaching drama, a film that attempts to depict the emotional tale of a family torn apart by disaster. Once the initial CGI downpour is over, Feng’s movie walks on much safer ground, but it’s the fine cast that keeps it from crumbling. A cast that includes Xu Fan (Feng’s wife in real life), Zhang Jingchu, Li Chen (Assembly) and Chen Daoming, Aftershock is available on R2 DVD courtesy of Metrodome Distribution.
Based on the novel by Zhang Ling, the film follows a family who fall victim to the Tangshan Earthquake. Li Yuanni (Xu Fan) and her husband, Fang Daqiang (Zhang Guoqiang), are enjoying a little quality time in the back of a lorry when the earthquake strikes; their two children are alone in the house upstairs. Fang is crushed to death whilst trying to rescue his children, Fang Deng and Fang Da, but the two children are discovered trapped beneath a concrete block.
Li is forced to make an unenviable decision, one that threatens to derail the rest of her life. Unable to save both children, she is left to choose between the life of her son and the life of her daughter. Li chooses to save her son, but unbeknown to her, Fang Deng has survived the quake and is adopted by a couple working for the People’s Liberation Army. What follows next is textbook stuff, and it’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that the two lives will come together for a tear-jerking finale.
Xiaogang Feng sure knows how to reel in an audience, ignoring the stunning effects for a moment; the talented director makes the most of a haunting score and some arresting imagery. The two children perform admirably, providing the opening act with an emotional core. Then it’s time for the grown ups to take over.
The start of the second act is intriguing enough, as the two adults make a go of their lives irrespective of the fact that their pasts are hard to ignore. It’s a shame that they don’t really have much to do; Fang Deng meets a man, gets pregnant and then meets another man, who we never actually get to know. Fang Da’s outcome is not dissimilar, settling down with a girl and having a baby, all the while encouraging his mother to move on with her life. The performances are engaging but the script is lightweight, and the middle section of the movie drags its heels for far too long. The eventual outcome is obvious from the start, but it takes an eternity to get there and when we do it feels unsatisfactory.
What’s more, Feng and scriptwriter Su Xiaowei feel the need to exploit the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in order to hammer their point home. Was it really necessary to base the climax around yet another disaster, does it really help to get their message across? We all ready know how it’s going to end, the inclusion of a second disaster feels forced, almost as though Feng is encouraging a younger audience unaffected by the original tragedy to spend their pocket money on theatre tickets.
That’s commercial cinema I suppose, you don’t become the highest grossing local film in Chinese history by appealing to a narrow demographic, but in widening his commercial intent, Feng has perhaps missed the point of the film in the first place. The closing moments ensure that we know what the score is, that Feng has provided a ‘fitting’ memorial to the victims of the ’76 earthquake. I’m not convinced that he succeeds in his quest, Aftershock is too contrived and too calculated, Feng has hit all the right notes but his ultimate vision is still out of tune.
Fine performances help take the sting out of it, as does an enticing opening act, unfortunately the remainder of Aftershock is instantly forgettable, unlike the disaster that claimed the lives of 240, 000 civilians.