The young Fang Deng with her adoptive parents

Aftershock was the biggest box office success in modern Chinese Cinema when it was released in June 2010. It was still some way behind Avatar but nevertheless marked the rapid expansion of Chinese exhibition in 2010 which saw more than four new cinema screens opening every day. Most of these new screens are digital and 3D compatible. Aftershock was also released on IMAX screens in China.

This major release came from Feng Xiaogang – dubbed by some commentators as the ‘greatest entertainer in Chinese Cinema’ or ‘the Stephen Spielberg of China’. Feng came out of Chinese TV to establish himself in the late 1990s as one of the most successful directors of ‘Chinese New Year’ movies. These are popular romcoms with broad humour all designed to make audiences feel good over the holiday season. This recent film sounds much more grim and anyway it was a Summer release. However, although the title refers to a tragic event, most of the movie is concerned with the long aftermath up to almost the present. This proves to be an emotional journey with a poignant ending that left many of the students on our Chinese Cinema weekend school in tears – but ultimately satisfied. Based on a novel, the English language title doesn’t really convey the personal, emotional force of the story. The tagline is better “23 seconds and 32 years” – or how a moment of horror can affect families over decades.

In 1976 the Tangshen earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded in China, devastated a major city and caused in excess of 240,000 deaths. In 2008 the rebuilt city decided to commemorate the dead and to part-finance a movie about the story of one family caught up in the destruction. The Fangs are a young couple with twins aged 6. When the quake happens (during the night) the parents are unable to reach the children who are sleeping. Father is killed by falling masonry and the children are trapped in the rubble. In the frantic rescue period, Mrs Fang is told that because of the dangerous state of the building the rescue team can only get one child out – the other will be buried alive. The frantic mother is eventually forced to decide in favour of her son (as tradition demands?). The little girl hears her mother give her decision to the rescuers. But later when the boy has been saved and the bodies are being taken from the rubble the concussed girl wakes up and is taken to an army rescue centre where she refuses to tell anyone what has happened. Eventually she is adopted by a childless PLA couple. Over the next twelve years she is brought up by the army couple in another city unknown to her mother and her brother who create a new life for themselves in rebuilt Tangshen. It is fairly clear that at some point brother and sister will meet again (i.e. because we know the conventions of a melodrama). It would happen sooner but the girl, Deng, is unwilling to speak about her mother and her adoptive parents assume that she is an orphan (or that they cannot find her parents).

Feng Xiaogang doesn’t attempt anything new in what is a conventional melodrama. Having said that, this is a powerfully emotive film. The CGI earthquake scenes are effective, the actors are well-directed and give convincing performances. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the narrative, the real interest for viewers in the West is the representation of Chinese social history and particularly the emergence of the ‘New China’ over the past ten years. There are relatively few direct references to the great political changes in China in the period even though the earthquake occurred just before Mao’s death and Deng enters university just before the Tiananmen Square protests. Instead we can see the changes expressed through the economic circumstances of the characters. The film opens with the excited purchase of a fan to combat the stifling heat – and ends in a world of shopping malls and BMWs. My slight disappointment with the narrative is that the twins both ‘get on’ quite well so that the story focuses on the new middle class. Deng goes to university to take medicine – which is not so surprising since her parents are relatively privileged as PLA soldiers. But her brother is seen to have real entrepreneurial spirit and despite his lowly background – with a single mother trying to raise her child after losing her home – he becomes a successful man in the New China. Partly, I suspect, this success is required by the narrative so that Feng can use product placements to help fund the film – BMW, insurance companies and other brands all feature prominently.

Because the film is a family melodrama, it is interesting to focus on the family relationships. Here traditional and modern China meet head on. There are two cases of mothers being almost forced to give up their sons to the care of their husband’s mother (i.e. to follow tradition). Resistance to this threatens the younger woman’s chance of working and building her career so she is torn between parenting and working to ‘consume’. Somewhere in the mix is also the pressure that the ‘one child only’ policy put on Chinese families during the 1980s in particular.

This kind of film offers an interesting case study for scholarly work that hasn’t really started yet – comparing the ways in which Chinese and Indian Cinema have represented the economic and social changes in their societies since the 1980s. Traditionally India has been more ‘open’ during national emergencies so that an equivalent natural disaster such as this 1976 earthquake would have been widely reported and aid would have been accepted from overseas. In China the government controlled the release of news and aid was only internal. At the end of Aftershock there is another quake in China but this time it is reported internationally – and now there is a Chinese diaspora, especially in North America, who are there to help (just as the South Asian diaspora responded to the Pakistani floods of 2009). Chinese Cinema is not yet at the point where the presence of a large overseas market is a major factor in domestic film production as it is in India but Aftershock is a possible indicator of how things might develop in the future.

Aftershock did get a UK release, but only a nominal one in order to promote the DVD release. It is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Here is the official HD trailer – which focuses unsurprisingly on the CGI earthquake scenes. But don’t be misled – the other two hours are the most important bits of the story:

And here is a useful background article on Feng Xiaogang. We did review one of his earlier films, Assembly, but certainly now I’ll be looking out for Feng’s work as it becomes available in subtitled versions.