CHINA 2010 Directed by: Xiaogang Feng Book: Zhang Ling Written by: Su Xiaowei Production: Hua Yi Bros. Cinematography by: Yue Lu Editing by: Xiao Yang Music: Li-Guang Wang Cast: Zhang Jingchu, Daoming Chen, Yi Lu, Jin Chen, Fan Xu, Chen Li, Zi-Feng Zhang, Ziwen Wang, Lixin Yang, Li-Li Liu, Mei Yong, Tie-Dan, Guoqiang Zhang, Zhong Lu
How do you dramatize a disaster that has actually happened? It probably depends on how interested you actually are. How much you care.
AFTERSHOCKS is honest cinema that has little to do with special effects orgies. The film instead chooses to deal with the decisions a catastrophe like the earthquake of Tangshan forces upon people, and how this incident affects everyone’s life in the long run. AFTERSHOCKS spends very little time on the earthquake itself, and why would it: it happened, and it is non-negotiable. There’s little that needs to be dramatized, or stylized for that matter (although the moment of the quake certainly leaves an impression). A dialogue later on reveals a crucial point: you don’t need to run from a small earthquake as no damage will be done, and you also don’t need to run from a very serious quake as you can’t escape anyway.
AFTERSHOCKS has understood that very well and consequently avoids any of the familiar disaster film clichés. What’s more important for the movie are the scars the quake leaves on people, the impact it has on their lives. The English title AFTERSHOCKS is very befitting, because life after the earthquake is no longer like life before. The disaster is hour zero, and everything after that is a very long aftershock that rocks the foundation of people’s very existence. For decades, smaller and larger shock waves will bring back not-so-fond memories and raise uncomfortable questions. Tangshan knows.
AFTERSHOCKS tries to fathom how the earthquake distorts reality, how it makes a family drift as the father dies, the mother is made to choose which of their two kids to save and the daughter who is believed to be dead is separated from the family for decades and grows up with step parents. It may only be one story of many, but like so often, if told well it can represent the story of them all.
AFTERSHOCKS succeeds in telling its story without complication or tricks, it speaks to us, personally involves us in the suffering we see. AFTERSHOCKS presses all the right buttons (not to say that was its objective): sometimes it observes, but is also very cinematic, sometimes it’s dramatic, but also authentic. AFTERSHOCKS respects the characters and their story at all times (a rarely seen integrity), but it nevertheless manages not to bore the audience (I wouldn’t want to call it „manages to entertain”). On the contrary, with increasing running time you’ll forget the time.
The ending may seem like a frequently seen happy end, but it is consistent and perhaps a necessity. After all that we have witnessed and gone through for more than two hours, any other denouement would be intolerable. And the way AFTERSHOCKS unwinds the threads isn’t fatuous by any means, but in fact perfectly rounds off the film.
Talking about perfection: many years ago we admired the aestheticism of Zhang Yimou, while today China’s far away from its heyday as a film nation. It is noteworthy however that AFTERSHOCKS is an extraordinarily sophisticated, detailed, precise and simply impressive film, a film so elegant and beautiful that most of what comes from Hong Kong (and elsewhere) fades in comparison.
AFTERSHOCKS is one of the most important Chinese films of the year, and I can only hope that more producers and directors will abandon political propaganda or purely commercial interests in the future and instead tell touching, relevant stories that have the power to move and deeply affect audiences far beyond the borders of the People’s Republic, just like AFTERSHOCKS does.