If you follow Chinese cinema, it's been almost impossible to avoid the publicity machine of Aftershock, from overdone promotional events to news stories that suspiciously appear to have been planted by its studio. In a brilliant publicity campaign, director Feng Xiaogang and his people at Huayi Brothers first sold the film based on the spectacle of recreating the Tangshan Earthquake, even striking a deal with the IMAX Corporation to make it the first non-English film to be transferred to the big-screen format.
Near its release, Feng started singing another tune, promising the potential audience that the film is more about heart than spectacle, and saying that people can simply skip the IMAX version if they cannot find an IMAX theater near them. Feng, a shareholder of Huayi Bros. himself, is obviously a skilled commercial filmmaker who has earned popularity with solid blockbusters like Assembly and If You are the One. However, Aftershock makes one wonder how far he will go for the almighty yuan.
The real Tangshan Earthquake, which happened in July, 1976 and killed approximately 240,000 people (some records report more), is interwoven with a more tumultuous period in contemporary Chinese history, including the governmentís refusal to accept foreign aid, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the death of Mao Zedong. However, almost none of the events that surrounded the disaster are depicted in Aftershock.
Based on a novel by Zhang Ling, Aftershock is not really about the Tangshan earthquake, but rather the emotional trauma suffered by disaster survivors even decades later. The story, which covers the 32 years after the earthquake, wants to have its cake and eat it too, attempting a harrowing family drama that also subtly depicts the various changes in Chinese society. However, the film is ineffective at portraying either, making it seem like it's simply exploiting a real tragedy just to squeeze a few tears (and hence some more tickets and word-of-mouth) out of its audience.
The family in focus is led by Yuan Ni (Xu Fan, the director's wife) and Da Qing (Zhang Guoqiang). On the night of the Tangshan Earthquake, the two leave their two small children - twins Fang Deng and Fang Da - at home while they engage in a brief tryst in the back of the family truck. The earthquake turns their apartment building into rubble, killing Da Qing and trapping the two children under concrete. During the rescue, Yuan Ni must choose to save only one child, and she chooses Fang Da, who she knows is alive enough to speak. The two leave Fang Dengís body next to their destroyed home and run off to be rescued by the Peopleís Liberation Army Ė not knowing that Fang Deng is actually alive.
At that point, the film immediately leaves big-budget spectacle behind and moves into two parallel plots following the lives of this broken family. Yuan Ni sticks it out in rebuilding Tangshan with Fang Da. Meanwhile, Fang Deng is adopted by two Peopleís Liberation Army officers (Chen Daoming and Chen Jin), though she's still shell-shocked from her ordeal. Taking up over an hour, this portion of the film serves as the film's core. It's also the film's slowest and most needless section. Yuan Niís choice and Fang Dengís survival already set up what will happen at the filmís closing, making the overlong middle section play like a television drama with better production values.
Zhang Jingchu (Night and Fog) and Li Chen are fine as the grown-up versions of the children, but their characters are not given anything interesting to do as Feng tries to cover contemporary history in both micro and macro terms. The script by Su Xiaowei replaces any real drama with humdrum depictions of the characters; the story structure doesnít give them any motivation and leaves the story dead in the middle. The earthquake is used as an excuse to define their choices (at one point, a character even decides against an abortion due to the earthquake), but the characters are also so morally pleasant that they appear superficial, and fail to drive the story in any intriguing way to its inevitable conclusion.
And the way that Feng and Su take the audience to that conclusion is not a pretty one, as they resort to using the tragedy of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake as a major setup for the filmís emotional climax. If the fact that the film was announced after the Sichaun Earthquake isnít enough proof that the film is a cash-in on the recent disaster, the way the filmmakers use the earthquake's aftermath for the film's tearjerking climax should confirm it.
Considering that the Tangshan city government partly financed the film, there was obvious political pressure on Feng to keep Aftershock as ideologically clean as possible. Thatís nothing new for Feng; he openly admitted to appeasing the government for the ending of Assembly, and that compromise felt like a necessary concession for the rest of the film. However, the casual handling of history in Aftershock makes the appeasement here feel overzealous. As many have criticized, the film possesses plenty of obvious product placement worth complaining about. However, the filmís biggest product placement seems to be for the Peopleís Liberation Army, which counts among its loyal members Huayiís co-founder Wang Xiaojun.
Despite the layers and layers of commercial and political motivations controlling the film, itís easy for a Chinese audience to turn a blind eye and buy into Aftershock. It offers a journey through the years with people who automatically earn goodwill for facing certain death and surviving. Feng is right to assert publicly that anyone not touched by the film isnít normal because the familial love portrayed in the film is based on raw, primal feelings inherent in normally-developed human beings. Of course, Feng is also helped by the actors (especially Fengís wife Xu Fan as Yuan Ni), who are so thoroughly convincing at selling those feelings that itís hard to avoid being emotionally caught in the film.
Ultimately, Aftershock isnít really a film that inspires thought and discussion - itís simply a movie to feel. Feng Xiaogang has made a film where more tears fall than concrete walls, and heís proven his ability as a commercial filmmaker by being calculating and effective at eliciting the right reactions and evoking the right emotions. However, it would be a great disservice to those who lost their lives at Tangshan (and Sichuan, to an extent) to have a film like Aftershock serve as a remembrance of their deaths. They, and the Chinese cinema audience, deserve better than this. (Kevin Ma, 2010)