With a very good trailer and well publicised production from China’s number one film-maker, Aftershock is the most eagerly awaited mainland release this year. It opens with the recreation of the Tangshan earthquake in North East China in 1976, when nearly a quarter of a million people died. Aftershock follows the lives of a family torn apart by this natural disaster.
Director Feng Xiaogang has made some of the best and most successful genre films of the past decade. His last pic, a RomCom / Drama, If You are the One, is about young urban mainlanders looking for love, and stars Shu Qi. His other films include: Assembly a wartime pic; an Andy Lau star turn in A World Without Thieves; the Shakespearean-styled melodrama The Banquet; and in 2003, my favourite flick of his so far,Cell Phone, a biting satire on China’s media and the nouveau riche.
He can spot a good script, casts well and often draws fine performances from underrated actors.
By Chinese standards Aftershock is a big summer blockbuster being sold to the public on its star appeal and its CGI depicting earthquake carnage. It’s also the first Sino produced IMAX feature (which I saw on standard 35 mm in a standard multiplex theatre.)
The film begins on a hot, humid afternoon in Tangshan with a swarm of dragonflies sweeping through the city, which brings one worker to comment “a storm is approaching.” Within twelve hours the city and surrounds of this provincial capital have been devastated by a powerful earthquake leaving thousands dead, maimed and trapped in debris.
In the aftermath of this horrific event, we find factory worker Yuanni (Xu Fan) searching the rubble for her family. Her husband is dead and she finds her young children, twins Fang Da and Fang Deng, buried under a huge cement block. With the rescue being so precarious, she is told only one child can be saved. Uncertain if the daughter, Fang Deng, is even alive, she decides to save the badly injured son. Unbeknown to Yuanni, the daughter is conscious and hears the mother’s words which set free her brother and sacrifice her. Miraculously, Fang Deng survives and is, literally, brought back from the dead by a PLA soldier. In the following weeks she is sent to a government orphanage where she is adopted by a middle-aged Army doctor (Chen Jin) and her husband. Yuanni knows nothing of her daughter’s escape and is roundly attacked by her extended family and survivors of the quake for her “Sophie’s Choice”.
The past has an inconvenient way of repeating itself and in 2008 during the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake, Tangshan families are reunited and damaged lives are finally put to rest.
A storyline like this should be impossible to screw-up as a film project, but the creative minds behind Aftershock have managed to do this and to do it extremely well.
From the big, initial earthquake sequence the problems arise with shoddy CGI. They are an uninspiring mix of shaky cam, obvious miniature work and effects which could be outtakes from The Mummy movies. When given a chance to really show off its CGI credentials with a film that demands such technical expertise, Aftershock shows the Chinese film industry has a long way to go before it can even sit at the Dreamworks table.
From what should be a classic melodrama in the Hollywood tradition, with the recent Sichuan horror still fresh in peoples’ minds, all amounts to nought if the audience has no empathy with the main characters. Xu Fan (who is wife of director Xiaogang) shares top billing with rising talent Zhang Jingchu (Overheard) who plays the adult Fang Deng. Xu Fan in a terrible performance is loud and hysterical, her relentless rage and self-pity just seems an excuse to withdraw from life. Chen Jin (Curse of the Golden Flower) as the adoptive mother delivers by rote a one note performance.
The only time the film works on a believable emotional level is a scene involving Fang Deng and her adopted father played by respected character actor Chen Daoming (Hero). The raw pent-up anger of two incredibly hurt but innocent people bursts onto the screen and, momentarily, we understand only too well the psychological wounds inflicted on and by the ones we love most.
China has proved with Aftershock it can now match the world’s best in producing thoroughly third-rate big budget movies.