In the hours after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, mother Yuan Ni (Fan Xu) is forced to make a horrific choice between saving either her son (Jiajun Zhang) or daughter (Zi-feng Zhang) from the rubble of their former home. With both children trapped under opposite ends of the same slab of concrete, the rescuers can only get one out alive. After making the hardest choice imaginable, Yuan and her badly injured son leave the city with the rescuers returning three years later to restart their lives. What neither of them know however is that the presumed dead daughter survived and was adopted by two of the soldiers who helped with the rescue effort.
I wasn’t aware of this film until a couple of weeks ago when I was talking about The Impossible at work and The Wizard mentioned to me that the plot sounded remarkably similar to a Chinese film he owned. He lent me the movie and while the two films do share certain thematic similarities, they are very different and excel in different areas. Whereas for me The Impossible’s strongest moments came in the moments of disaster, Aftershock isn’t so strong in those moments but the following hour and a half is very good.
The back of the DVD box says that Aftershock’s special effects rival anything Hollywood can produce. This isn’t true. They can rival a lot of Western movies but at times feel cheap and unrealistic. Occasionally though there is an excellent shot and the effects certainly aren’t bad but they’re not great either. The feeling of terror wasn’t as strong as in the aforementioned The Impossible either but once the quake had subsided the impact was much stronger as the mother of the central family is forced to make the heart wrenching and seemingly impossible choice between which of her children she wants to live. What is worse is that both children can hear her making her decision and the camera is on the unlucky child’s face as she decides. It’s heartbreaking to watch. My knowledge that the plot involved a separated family meant that I didn’t think the children would actually die but the effect is still very moving.
The plot is split up into four acts which take the film forward ten years at a time from 1978 to 2008. This is quite effective at showing how each family member is progressing but it sometimes dragged a little bit and I was anxious for the inevitable reconciliation. Sometimes the story wasn’t that interesting and during the years in between a lot was left out, including how one of the children went from a rickshaw driver to the owner of their own business. It also made me laugh that there was so much shock that one character married a foreigner. I know China is still pretty isolationist but their gasps surprised me. The entire film builds to a forth act reunion which if anything felt rushed when it finally arrived but was still emotional.
The direction is pretty good throughout but as I’ve mentioned, some of the special effects weren’t up to scratch. The dramatic moments were better handled and the acting was also a mixed bag. I thought that both young actors were very good but they were only on screen for the first half an hour. Fan Xu has her moments and makes use of some very good makeup to help age her. Chen Daoming was excellent as the foster father and Zhang Jingchu as well as being really hot is also very good. Some of the acting wasn’t so great though. I didn’t think that Chen Di was very good as the adult son and as is so often the case with Asian cinema it was the Western actors who came off the worst. David F. Morris is unbelievably wooden and out of his depth as ‘the foreigner’.
Aftershock was chosen as China’s entry for the 2010 Academy Awards but didn’t receive a nomination. I’m not overly surprised by this as although it is quite emotional and has a good central story; it isn’t quite in the same league as the likes of Biutiful which did receive a nomination. Aftershock is a good film which brings to life a disaster I previously knew nothing about and though far from perfect is a solid disaster movie with a very soft core.
- Aftershock was the first commercial IMAX film made outside the USA.
- The 1976 Tangshan earthquake killed between 240,00-255,000 people and had the highest death toll of any Twentieth Century earthquake.
- The film won the Best Picture and Best Actor awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards