Although Aftershock is a remarkable film that
celebrates the strength and nobility of the human spirit, it will be seen by few
outside China. Apart from an aversion to subtitled films, the West seems
obsessed with the sugary-sweet fare offered by Hollywood to take to a film that
deals with death and loss. It’s a pity because this brilliant Chinese film pays
tribute to the value of human life and to the redeeming qualities of prayer, sacrifice
and forgiveness. And it places the family at the heart of human endeavour.
Aftershock is the
second biggest selling film in the country this year after Avatar and looks set to make the
reputation of Feng
Xiaogang, China’s most commercially successful filmmaker, outside of China.
Feng is already well known here for his comedies and for his 2007 movie Assembly, which took a very realistic
look at the Chinese civil war.
Aftershock is set against the backdrop
of two major earthquakes to hit China – the 1976 Tangshan quake that claimed
nearly 250,000 lives and the Wenchuan (Sichuan) quake 32 years later that took 70,000
lives. The real aftershock of the film is the emotional and psychological
trauma of the survivors.
The two quakes are
connected over the intervening period through the lives of a pair of twins
caught in the Tangshan quake when their mother has to make a heart wrenching
choice to save one or the other. Faced with losing both children she ultimately
chooses her son Fang Da over twin sister Fang Deng.
Fang Deng’s body
is carried from the rubble and laid to rest next to her dead father while the distraught
mother carries the twin brother to find medical attention for his injuries.
Miraculously Fang Deng survives, waking next to the body of her father. Apparently
suffering amnesia, she is taken to a People’s Liberation Army hospital and
ultimately is adopted by a childless PLA officer couple who take Fang Deng (now
called Ya Ya) to their home city away from Tangshan.
We witness the
growth and development of the two children over the next few years. Fang Deng,
raised by the PLA couple, goes on to study medicine. Fang Da suffers through
hardships with his factory worker mother as China begins its transformation to
a modern consumer economy, and he leaves Tangshan to seek his fortune in
China’s booming south after the country’s opening in the 1980’s.
While the director
probably didn’t intend the movie as a statement against abortion, it certainly
makes a poignant comment. In her fourth year of medical school Fang Deng
becomes pregnant to a fellow student. When he urges her to get an abortion, she
refuses. Everyone does it and it’s no big deal, he says. But, in one of the
film’s most powerful moments, she explains that the boyfriend does not
understand what she went through in the Tangshan earthquake, when she awoke in a
field, surrounded by corpses. For her the life of this unborn baby is a symbol
of hope and a chance to give the maternal love she was denied. So she drops out
of medical school to have the baby.
virtues of parental love and filial duty are important themes. It also shows
the importance of festivals in family life: whether it is Chinese New Year, the
Festival of Hungry Ghosts or Grave Sweeping Day, Chinese society is bound up with
But the ultimate
message is forgiveness and redemption. During the rescue operation after the
2008 Sichuan earthquake Fang Deng and her brother, Fang Da, are reunited and
she later travels with him home to Tangshan to meet her mother. The emotional
meeting that ensues could easily be overdone, but is not. It is heartrending as
Fang Deng comes to terms with the unthinkable choice her mother had to make,
and the pain her mother has endured for 32 years in the belief that her daughter
A caveat is
necessary. The film may be too powerful for younger viewers. Also, although this
is China’s first IMAX film, it is not necessary to see it on a supersized
screen. Apart from the opening earthquake scene, IMAX is almost superfluous
with a story as potent as Aftershock.
Overall the acting
is convincing and lead actors are superb. Many of the extras were survivors of
the Tangshan quake. Perhaps this is a tribute to their lifelong suffering. If
you see only one foreign-language film this year, make it this one. It will
tear your heart out. But that’s what makes a great movie.
Alistair Nicholas is the founder of AC Capital
Strategic Consulting, a China-based communications advisory and training
company. He also advises companies on the use of social media and search engine