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Aftershock (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"23 seconds of destruction, 32 years of rebuilding."
4 stars

It's not hard to get the wrong impression of "Aftershock"; the poster in the theater lobby notes that it was released in IMAX (interestingly, though showing the North American release date, the text on that one-sheet is almost entirely Chinese), and while director Feng Xiaogang has directed a wide range of films in all genres, it has been his grand spectacles such as "Assembly" and "The Banquet" (aka "Legend of the Black Scorpion") that have gotten the most attention overseas. So it may be a bit surprising when, with roughly a half hour down and nearly two to go, the film shifts gears to become a family melodrama, and stays one to the end. Fortunately, it's a pretty good one as such things go.

The film starts in Tangshan on 26 July 1976, where we meet Fang Qiang (Zhang Guoqiang) and his wife Yuan Li (Fan Xu), as well as their twin children, Fang Da and Fang Deng. Sadly, early the next morning is the date and time when Tangshan becomes the site of perhaps the most devastating earthquake of the twentieth century: Roughly a quarter of the of this city's million inhabitants died when it struck as they slept. As the city crumbles around Yuan Li, she is faced with an impossible choice - a piece of rubble rests on both her children; lift it from Da and Deng will be crushed, lift it from Deng and Da dies. Ultimately, she says "save my son". Fortunately, the men working to dig the children out are neither engineers nor doctors, and Deng lives. The silent child is adopted by two of the soldiers (Chen Daoming and Chen Jin). We next catch up with them about ten years later, when Fang Da (Chen Li), who lost an arm in the quake, is chafing at his mother's obsessive attention, while sister Wang Deng (Zhang Jingchu) is making plans to apply to medical school, though her nightmares indicate that she remembers much more about the night of the quake than she's let on.

All the characters are deeply affected by that night, and it's something we will watch them deal with practically to the present day; the English-language title turns out to be quite descriptive. This is a film not about a disaster or even just its immediate aftermath, but how a single event can affect a person profoundly. The script by Su Xiaowei spans thirty-two years and does a remarkable job of keeping the focus on its main characters even though there are ample opportunities to go off on tangents or have the main cast grow to an unwieldy size; supporting characters are rotated in and out naturally. There are some odd pacing issues, though, almost as though Feng and Su felt they had plenty of time in the beginning but pressure to wrap it up toward the end: There's a lengthy sequence with Qiang's mother and sister, for instance, that ultimately doesn't change anything, although this may be a sequence the film's main audience expects to see. At the other end of the movie, certain major emotional moments happen just off-screen. They are not bad choices; the restraint actually works very well. It's odd, though, in that there are times that restraint is not the word one would use to describe Feng's work here.

And, as Feng sometimes isn't restrained, the cast also sometimes finds themselves playing to the rafters. Fan Xu gets the brunt of it, especially early, when the mother is wailing from her impossible choice and loss, but as the film goes on, we see nuance to her performance as a woman paralyzed by guilt and loss. Just as good, if not better, is Zhang Jingchu as the the adult Wang Deng; not only is she believable at a variety of ages, but she just embodies Deng so perfectly that when she finally does get something off her chest, we instantly see how it has affected her not just in what she's done, but how she's carried herself while doing it. Chen Li doesn't stand out in quite the same way, but is still impressive in how he makes us believe in Da getting himself together, even if much of it happens off-screen. Also very good are Chen Daoming and Chen Jin; when we first meet their characters, they're fresh-faced People's Liberation Army soldiers, and it's somewhat surprising to see that their marriage has become contentious as the film flashes forward to the 1980s, but their portrayal of a frayed relationship hits all the right notes.

Having them be soldiers does give the film an opportunity or two to engage in the nationalism that has been very visible in Chinese films of late; for instance, the movie stops to mourn Mao Zedong's death at the appropriate point in the timeline, although it's got little (if anything) to do with the families' story. Still, while the overt displays of national pride are sometimes jarring, what's impressive is Feng uses the movie's timeframe to show the changes in China as a whole and Tangshan in particular over the last thirty years: The image becomes brighter, Tangshan goes from being oppressive and run-down (even before it's rubble) to clean and modern, and the characters rise from being laborers to entrepreneurs, world travelers rather than people shackled by their village. There's a bit of propaganda to this, obviously, but truth as well, and it's mostly done in the background.

Of course, as much as Aftershock winds up being a family drama, the earthquake sequence is pretty spectacular. Feng starts the film ominously, with an immense swarm of dragonflies moving to a safer location, and the actual earthquake is amazingly staged, with plenty of horrifying moments, and effects done well enough that there are very few moments where the audience can see the boundary between live action and effects shots. It must have been something to see in IMAX, the first Chinese film to be presented in that format.

It's extremely unlikely to play that format on this side of the Pacific, even in the digital IMAX screens. Fortunately, the film, while epic in scale, it's not merely empty spectacle. Melodramatic, to be sure, but still rather well done.

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originally posted: 11/01/10 15:21:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/27/11 Rhoart Very moving and poignant. The effects were outstanding. 5 stars
12/05/10 Keith Best movie I've seen this year, still feeling the emotions after one week 5 stars
11/05/10 Ace-of-Stars the "all things come full-circle" cliche is a bit much; still visually & epically stunning 4 stars
10/09/10 denny very nice, usually don't like big epics 4 stars
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Directed by
  Xiaogang Feng

Written by
  Xiaowei Su

  Fan Xu
  Jingchu Zhang
  Chen Li
  Daoming Chen
  Jin Chen
  Yi Lu

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