Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I Am Unreasonably Irritated By "Aftershock"

"Aftershock" was easier to get a hold of than I thought. Small wonder, since it was one of the big blockbusters in China last year, the first real commercial Chinese film made for the IMAX format. Like most blockbusters, its big on spectacle, but otherwise a pure, over-the-top melodrama as only the Chinese can make them. I'm having a hard time not being cynical about this aspect of the film, because Western event films so rarely go for the full-blown, operatic, emotional fireworks on display here, it's almost off-putting at first when the leading ladies start wailing.

This is not to say that they don't have good reason to. "Aftershock" examines the impact of the great 1976 Tangshan earthquake on a family of four: truck driver Fang Da Qiang (Zhang Guo Qiang), his wife Li Yuan Ni (Fan Xu), and their twin children, Fang Deng and Fang Da, a girl and a boy respectively. When the earthquake strikes, Da Qiang is killed and the children are trapped in the rubble of their collapsed apartment building. Rescue workers tell the distraught Yuan Ni that they can only rescue one of the children, who are pinned under a concrete slab, because moving the debris to save one will surely crush the other. Yuan Ni refuses to choose at first, but faced with losing both her children, tells them to save the boy, Fang Da. It is only after mother and son are evacuated that we learn that the little girl, Fang Deng, miraculously also survived. Unwilling or unable speak, and assumed to be an orphan, she is adopted and grows up with a new family. The rest of the film follows the twins and their mother over next thirty years, and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that the finale witnesses their tearful reunion and reconciliation.

The earthquake sequences make for great IMAX-worthy set-pieces, but this is not a disaster movie. "Aftershock" spends the bulk of its running time in the strictly domestic arena, charting the impact of the earthquake on Li Yuan and the adult Fang Da (Chen Li) and Fang Deng (Zhang Jing Chu). Li Yuan is guilt-stricken by her choice, and spends decades blaming herself for the death of her daughter. Fang Da, left with only one arm after being rescued, has a rough time getting out from under Li Yuan's overprotective wing and making his own way in the world. More interesting is Fang Deng's side of the story, because it's not clear how much she remembers of the earthquake or her life before it. Both of the twins suffer rocky relationships and other misfortunes that can all be traced back to the tragedy and broken family ties. However the epic scope of the story and the relatively few characters don't mean there's much depth or nuance. The characters are cliche and bland, their motives and actions utterly predictable. Li Yuan is the saintly, tormented mother who can't let go of the past. The attractive kids have it rough but learn to endure.

What "Aftershock" is good at is playing up those big, cathartic, emotional moments. When Li Yuan begs the rescue workers to find some way to save both her children, and the actress really puts her lungs into it, I was tearing up, even though I knew on some level it was blatant emotional manipulation. I'm tempted to compare "Aftershock" to a Michael Bay film, except with crying jags in the place of explosions, meant to induce waterworks from the audience instead of adrenaline highs. And there I go being cynical again. Of course there's no shame in a solid three-hankie movie, and in the West we really don't see enough of them anymore. But considering the subject matter, the film's ambitions seem strangely limited and it is far more pandering to its audience than it needs to be. There were also a lot of little things that felt off, like the same actress playing Fa Deng from age eighteen to forty while never visibly aging a day. Or major relationships taking place almost entirely offscreen.

What surprised me most was the scarcity of context. Following only three main characters was fine for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but I was still left waiting for the camera to pull back and show the full extent of the damage to Tangshan, and the wider impact of the disaster on the community and the rest of the country. Aside from a few quick wide shots of rubble, this never comes. Lip service is paid to the tragedy quite often, but the main characters are whisked away from Tangshan, and time skips forward so quickly, we barely see anything of the aftermath. It is only at the very, very end of the film, that the creators acknowledge that hundreds of thousands died in the earthquake, leaving us with a final shot of the massive Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Wall that bears the names of the dead. And there is no mention of the political fallout related to relief efforts that led to the end of the Cultural Revolution, but I suppose that's really asking for too much.

If you're in the mood for some uplifting human drama, by all means, seek out "Aftershock." Be warned, however, that it really doesn't say much about the Great Tangshan Earthquake. And though I have few major complaints about the film, I still came away disappointed.

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