Described by The Wall Street Journal as the first “big commercial” IMAX film to be made outside of the USA, Aftershock (aka: Tangshan dadizhen) certainly begins in spectacular style. Set in and around the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that claimed 650,000 lives, the film opens on a dirty, industrialised city in which people work all hours of the day to afford what meagre lives they can. However, somewhere between the greyness of the buildings and the blueness of the sky, happiness blooms in the shape of a young family. A family of twins, who spend every moment of their lives together as they battle bullies, enjoy ice creams and bask in the love of their tireless parents. It is a simple life and a hard life but a quite quietly affecting one. Xiaogang Feng is better known as a director of romantic comedies, and his eye for domestic rhythms is evident in Aftershock’s opening sequences. Then everything goes a bit Michael Bay.
As the twins lie slumbering in their beds, their pet fish begin to leap out of the water. Then clouds of locusts sweep through the town. Then the rumbling starts. Then it gets louder. And louder; and then louder… Before long, we are in the midst of a spectacular earthquake sequence in which buildings tumble and people are crushed by industrial machinery left right and centre. Interestingly, Feng decides to make these disaster scenes as bloody as possible and the result is a feeling of real weight and human consequence that all too often eludes the more
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child-friendly and bloodless US disaster movies such as Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), and Bay’s own Transformers (2007). These sequences were pretty spectacular when watched on DVD with a non-widescreen CRT telly; I can only imagine how amazing they would look on blu-ray or on a proper IMAX screen. Then, after five minutes of absolute bloody pandemonium, the film changes gear again.
Amidst the wreckage of Tangshan, the young mother (Xu Fan) searches for her family. Her husband is gone but her children are still alive somewhere, trapped under the wreckage. Because of the way a slab is balanced, the young mother is faced with an awful choice: Either she saves her son and condemns her daughter to death, or she saves her daughter and condemns her son. The decision she makes will turn out to define her life as both of her children survive. Aftershock is the story of how these three survivors of the Tangshan earthquake were forced to live with the consequences of that single terrifying decision. The bulk of the film is spent hopping between two separate strands.
On the one hand, we have the story of the little girl who is taken in by two of the soldiers sent by generous Uncle Mao to rescue the survivors. With endless love and endless patience, these two soldiers nurse the little girl back to health and try to coax a few words from her traumatised mind. The little girl is silent. She is silent because of what she saw and because she knows that her mother chose to condemn her to death.
On the other hand, we have the story of the young mother who struggles to bring up her one-armed son, despite the guilt of having abandoned her daughter, and the condemnation of her unsympathetic relatives who look at the disabled boy and the traumatised mother and conclude that the wrong half of the family survived.
The little girl grows into Wang Deng (Zhang Jingchu) a beautiful and intelligent young woman who is doted on by her father (Daoming Chen) but who is never completely happy because of the resentment that she feels towards her mother and the resentment that her adoptive mother (Jin Chen) feels towards her for the way in which she monopolises the attention of her foster father. Indeed, in one lovely scene, Mr Wang runs into his daughter’s room to console her only to be dressed down for his wife for daring to appear in his underwear before a woman who is not, biologically at least, a part of his family.
The little boy grows into Fang Da (Chen Li) who overcomes his disability to found a successful company. However, as time passes he grows increasingly exasperated with his mother’s refusal to allow him to help her. Still stuck in the past and living with guilt, the (now not so) young mother continues to live in the same awful apartment and to work the same awful job. Chances at happiness come and go but she is emotionally dead, she never recovered from the effects of the earthquake. Nor is she the only one. As the years grind past, the emotional tendrils of the earthquake creep outwards into the lives of other people. Husbands, boyfriends, children and friends all feel the aftershocks of the young mother’s decision. One choice affecting so many lives; so many aftershocks… Then something happens. There is another earthquake.
Feeling the tug of their childhoods, the twins race independently to the scene of the quake in the hope of helping out. Miraculously, they encounter each other among the wreckage and Fang Da takes Wang Deng home to meet her mother for the first time in over 30 years. So much is built into these few moments. So many years, so many lives; so much hatred, so much resentment… The question is not who will break down but how the breakdown will manifest itself.
Despite the CGI-studded opening section, Aftershock is very much a traditional family melodrama. It deals in long-buried emotions and carefully unpacks them using a palate of relationships, secrets and emotional breakthroughs. Boasting a wonderfully humane performance by the venerable Li Chen and a magnificently complex and brittle turn by Zhang Jingchu, Aftershock is an entirely creditable piece of dramatic filmmaking that displays a profound sympathy for the harshness of the human condition. However, while the film is undeniably well-made, well-written and perfectly watchable, it is not particularly interesting either.
Indeed, because the groundwork for the film’s human elements is laid in such sensational style and because the drama hinges upon an outlandishly cruel twist of fate (mother sacrifices daughter to save son, daughter survives and resents mother) there was always the danger that the script would fail to make anything substantial out of the torrent of complex emotions it lets out of the box over the film’s quite substantial running time. Thirty years of resentment, abandonment, guilt and misery are laid bare before the audience and then resolved in only a few short scenes.
Providing anything even approaching a dramatically successful resolution to so much emotion was always going to be a huge challenge for any scriptwriter but, despite taking a manly swing at it, scriptwriter Wu Si (or quite possibly the original novelist Zhang Ling) fails to completely stick the landing. The breakdown, when it comes, strikes in a slightly unexpected place and feels a little bit too clever and unexpected to completely satisfy or convince. This leaves us with a film that is an entirely creditable piece of middlebrow entertainment but very little else.
The DVD comes with no extras which is as regrettable as ever.