Aftershock, China’s first official IMAX movie, might attract praise or criticism for many different reasons, but it’s certainly not the kind of film to leave viewers indifferent. Based on the events of the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, Hebei province, Xiaogang Feng’s film follows the aftermath of a shattering natural disaster.
Mother of two Yuan Ni (Fan Xu) and her husband Da Qiang are caught outside their home in Tangshan when the earthquake strikes, and make a desperate attempt at saving their twins Fang Da (Chen Li) and Fang Deng (Jingchu Zhang). The father dies tragically and the mother is faced with a “Sophie’s Choice” style decision, where the rescue of one child ultimately also stands for the death of the other. Threatened with losing both of her children, she favours her son Fang Deng (out of guilt for Da Qiang perhaps). However, his sister Fang Da survives without her family’s knowledge and is adopted by a childless couple from the People’s Liberation Army. The story unfolds over the following 32 years, following the lives of the three as they meet and part once more.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Aftershock are the cast’s performances. In this respect, the film works towards conveying an array of strong emotional reactions, from deeply scarred characters, to a traumatic event that never ceases to affect their lives – even as they move on, homes are being rebuilt and possessions reacquired. Fan Xu gives a particularly impressive performance as Yuan Ni, portraying a widowed, guilt-ridden, but nevertheless strong woman, that finds the force to somehow bring the present and the past together in a perpetual attempt to mend what has been broken.
Still, Aftershock manages to be both a very moving drama and also a comment on family and motherhood, with Yuan Ni and Fang Deng placed in contrasting positions as mothers themselves. The first, Yuan Ni, is forced makes a painful sacrifice and yearns for the opportunity to go back and make amends, whilst her daughter Fang Deng chooses to give life to her own child (rather than aborting, for reasons that are explained), leaving behind both an immature partner and her own painful memory of childhood. In the end, they both have to face their fears and guilt.
As a result of either trying to escape Chinese censorship, or perhaps even due to an actual belief in the values of Communist China, Aftershock also paints a vivid political picture of its country of origin. The fact that the historical aspects have been totally neglected in contextualising the events – importantly the omission of China’s refusal of external help – give the impression of a very independent and self-sufficient state. The central position of the People’s Liberation Army within the film (as well as the society it portrays), along with the repeated displays of communist Red Star and images of perpetual reconstruction and evolution, all help to clarify the film’s somewhat dubious ideological stance.
Nevertheless, Aftershock delivers what it promises, and at times more so. Xiaogang Feng manages to tell a touching story, whilst also expanding it to incorporate a larger tale of China and its people’s survival through hardship. However, a word of warning: if you do decide to see it, make sure you have some tissues at hand, just in case.