Although still not as well known in the West as contemporaries such as Zhang Yimou, or even Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaogang has continued to prove himself one of the most successful and indeed bankable directors working in modern Chinese cinema. Having made his name through sharp satires before moving onto period spectacle with “The Banquet” and rough war drama with “Assembly”, his latest outing “Aftershock” sees him turning his hand to the subject of natural disasters and their devastating human cost. Based upon the novel of the same name by Zhang Ling, the film is a big budget affair, being the first Chinese production in the IMAX format, with amazing special effects and an impressive cast that includes Feng’s wife Xu Fan, Zhang Jing Chu (recently in “Flirting Scholar 2”), Li Chen (“Assembly”) and Lu Yi (“Seven Swords”). With earthquakes being very much in the public eye in China, the film was unsurprisingly a huge hit at the domestic box office, pulling in more than RMB600 million and becoming the highest grossing local release ever.
The film opens in 1976 with the Tangshan earthquake, which lasted just 23 seconds, but which levelled the city and resulted in a death toll of more than 240,000. The plot follows a family caught up in the horror, with father Fang Daqiang (Zhang Guoqiang) being killed while trying to rescue his children, leaving his wife Li Yuanni (Xu Fan) in the unthinkable position of having to choose between saving either her young son Fang Da or daughter Fang Deng. Although she chooses her son, and then leaves the city in a state of shock, unbeknownst to her, Fang Deng also survives and is taken in and adopted by a kind couple from the military. As time passes, Fang Da (now played by Li Chen) and Fang Deng (Zhang Jing Chu) grow up, not knowing of each other’s existence, whilst Li Yuanni continues to torture herself with guilt. Finally, in 2008 when an earthquake hits Sichuan, the two meet again, and try to reconcile their traumatic pasts.
One of the most important things to be aware of up front with “Aftershock”, is that it is not a disaster movie in the Hollywood sense, with its title being interpreted quite literally and referring to the emotional and psychological scars of the earthquake that continue to affect its victims even generations after the event. Although the special effects, which were also worked on by teams from the US and Korea, are certainly impressive, they are limited to the first few scenes of the film, and a few shots scattered throughout. This works well, and helps the film in its aims of being a human drama rather than a spectacle – definitely a sensible idea, as any exploitation of the earthquake for big screen thrills would surely have been in remarkably bad taste. Similarly, their briefness fits in well with the shocking fact that despite causing such destruction, the quake itself only lasted for such a short period of time.
Unsurprisingly, given that the film was made predominantly for the domestic market, it revolves mainly around concerns of family, with a few dashes of national pride thrown in. Thankfully, it never takes the latter too far, and though there are a few flag waving moments, these don’t detract from its more important and universal concerns. The story itself is strong, and whilst basically a fairly familiar tale of a family being broken apart by tragedy before attempting painful reunion, it rings powerfully true. Boosted by a decent script and some solid acting, especially from Xu Fan, the film doesn’t pull too many emotional punches along the way, and never seeks too much to undermine essential sense of responsibility ensuing from the horrendous choice faced by Li Yuanni early on. By spanning several decades, it does a pretty good job of developing its characters in convincing fashion, and the story is engaging and moving without being too saccharine or forced.
In terms of direction, Feng again shows himself to be an incredibly adaptable helmer, being as adept with melodrama as he has been with various other genres. The film does attempt to have the best of both worlds, being at times gritty and rough, with an almost documentary like feel, and at others more like a television drama, though this does suit the material. Although long, the film is well paced, with its revelations and jumps between different decades being well timed to keep things from ever getting too middle of the road.
As a result, though it may disappoint viewers expecting an onslaught of special effects in the Hollywood manner, “Aftershock” is a surprisingly affecting film that successfully tackles a particularly painful and still current subject without being either tasteless or unambitiously bland. Having made another overtly commercial film and one so obviously tailored for the mainland blockbuster market, it has to be said that Feng Xiaogang is running the danger of being labelled as a director for hire, especially when considering the cutting edge and realist feel to his early works, though its hard to argue too much with the end product, and he again proves himself one of the best in the business whichever camp he decides to stand in.
Xiaogang Feng (director)
CAST: Jingchu Zhang … Fang Deng / Wang Deng
Daoming Chen … Mr. Wang / Foster Dad
Chen Li … Fang Da
Fan Xu … Mom
Jin Chen … Foster Mom
Guoqiang Zhang … Fang Qiang