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Aftershock: A Chinese Film with all the right ingredients

January 4, 2011

*This review contains spoilers*

Traumatising and horiffic eartquake scenes

Twins, torn apart

A pissed off mother-in-law

A bratty teenage boy

A pregnant medical student

A really bad Canadian actor

Take all of the above and add in some stunning HD IMAX proportion panaromas and you have the most decent big-budget movie that came out in 2010.

Aftershock is a moving tribute to the victims of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which 240,000 died in the violent and upsetting ways earthqaukes always destroy lives.

Tangshan, after the earthquake

This is not a disaster movie  –  though it would be had it been made by Hollywood. We would have had two hours of bare chested men shifting through rubble. Instead, the rubble was in the hearts of a young Yuan Ni, whose life is shattered when her son loses an arm and she loses her husband and daughter.

But, unbeknown to Yuan Ni, her daughter survives: Yuan Ni is told by rescuers to save only one of her twins (something to do with concrete slab that is balancing on them both) and Yuan Ni opts to save her son. Little Deng, thought by her mother to have been sentenced to death, survives to be adopted by members of China’s Communist army. She grows up bitter and lost because she heard her mother choose to let her die.

This film achieves great things. It balances a huge budget, set pieces and product placement with fragile characters, an engaging narrative and heart. The title ‘aftershock’ reflects perfectly how the earthquake ripples through the family as the decades wear on, changing their hopes and minds until they realise all they really needed was each other. It sounds rubbish to read when I express it like this but the journey Yuan Ni and her children take is engrossing. You get a real sense you are watching them grow up – at one point a teenage Da (the son) behaves so childishly the urge to give him a smack is quite real.

It would be easy for detractors to see such a film as lightweight – it has nothing to say about the schools that crumbled in Sichuan in 2008, and Tangshan is rebuilt like a lego city.  It makes being part of the PLA look quite fun. This is unfair. When the film starts with scenes of children being crushed by buildings or swallowed into the ground, no further detail is needed.

Aftershock is for anyone who wants to to watch a film about loss, or at least would like to see some nice pictures of China’s astonishing development over the past 40 years.

Aftershock, dir: Feng Xiaogang, 2010

Note

As for the really bad Canadian actor – I never looked him up but his appearance is a shocker. A brief performance that is so bad, I thought he had been CGId into the film. If you watch it, you’ll know who I mean.

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