Aftershock (唐山大地震, Tángshān Dàdìzhèn) is a 2010 Feng Xiaogang feature film about China’s devastating 1976 Tangshan Earthquake that saw over 240,000 people perish. After watching the movie trailer, I swore to myself that I would see it:
Wouldn’t you? Come on, there’s a little girl in there, waking up in the rain, surrounded by dead bodies. She’s all alone, literally shell-shocked, oh-so-lost, with rescue workers rushing by her, in the most depressingly gray world of rubble and death…and then, “Oh schnap!“, there’s this Schindler’s List-esque red highlight, of blood mixing with the pooling rainwater. You know she’s looking around, for family, but you know you suspect they’re all gone, and as you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, that must fucking suck…”, a lone PLA soldier appears and notices her. He wraps her in his coat, as any decent grown-up man ought to do, and as he asks her where she lives, where her parents are, if she has any relatives left, you’re screaming in your head, “no, you bastard, can’t you see?! They’re all gone, they’re all gone!!!” As she breaks down and begins crying, your heart breaks into a million itty-bitty pieces.
Because you’re human.
Unfortunately for me, I was away in the United States for two months over the summer, flying out of Shanghai right before the movie came out in China’s cinemas. Would the film still be in theatres by the time I got back? I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, my girlfriend said it was still playing when I got back on August 10th and suggested we go watch it that very Friday. I was doubly lucky because she had previously threatened to go watch it without me. Why? Let’s just say she has strong reservations about my propensity to cry like a little bitch in any movie that involves oh-so-sad subject matter. She claims that just as she’s about to squeeze a few tears out of that chunk of ice she calls a heart, I’m already shaking and convulsing beside her, a stream of tears dripping off my chin. She claims.
Now that I’ve seen it, I have a long post’s worth of bemused observations and impressions I need to get off my chest. Before anyone misunderstands, do know that I had purposefully avoided reading reviews of the movie up to this point, fearing spoilers. However, I did know quite early on that the earthquake scene was near the beginning, isn’t that long, and that most of the movie would be about the lives of the characters.
WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
So, Aftershock tells the story of a mother, Yuan Ni, and her daughter and son, Fang Zeng and Fang Da, and how their lives are forever changed by a historic early morning earthquake in 1976.
It begins casually enough, with the father driving a factory truck, with the two kids riding beside him on their way home. As the kids hop off the truck, they’re carrying a new family possession, an electric fan to combat the heat of summer. Before the father turns to head to factory, they beg him for some money to buy ice treats, which he obliges like the good father that he is. The children exchange their coins with the roadside peddler, and the father drives away. What do you know, some local bully comes by and swipes the slightly younger brother Fang Da’s treat, turns and walks away confident that no one is going to step up to him. That dick.
However, being the good slightly older sister, Fang Zeng charges over and pushes the bully down, knocking him flat on his face and the stolen treat now in the dust. If her brother can’t have it, no one will, dammit! Then, of course, the two little kids high-tail it out of there, the bully in hot pursuit, lest they get their asses seriously whupped. They make it home, escaping the bully, safe, and with the electric fan. At this time, Fang Da swipes a freshly washed tomato, leaving none for his sister, though their mother promises to wash her another one soon. All of this is critical for magnifying the sense of unfairness that will factor into the trauma Fang Zeng carries with her for much of the movie.
The earthquake hits early in the morning, as the children are asleep at home, and their parents are at the factory, taking a break and fooling around — literally — about to in the back of the factory truck. As the world they know crumbles around them, with gratuitous chunks of building crushing scores of unfortunate people in every scene1, Mom and Dad rush home in hopes of rescuing their children. Just as Yuan Ni is about to run into their residential building as its coming down, her husband pulls her back and runs in instead, only to be crushed, but saving her life.
As day breaks, Yuan Ni is alone, mourning the loss of her husband, asking why he did what he did, and searching for her children. Rescuers find them buried and trapped in the rubble. With a large slab on them both, Fang Da’s arm is caught and Fang Zeng is unable to speak, only able to pound a rock on surrounding rubble as a signal of her being alive. The rescuers eventually conclude that only one child can be saved, that to save one would crush the other, and the mother must make an impossible choice but a choice nonetheless. Respectably, she agonizes forever, insisting that at first that both be saved, but as the rescue workers get tired of waiting for her to come around to reality, and are called to go help rescue others, she decides and chooses her son. Fang Zeng, still alive, still conscious, but unable to say anything with the slab of concrete crushing down on her, overhears.
If you’re like me, part of you is thinking that because you can put yourself in Fang Zeng’s shoes2 and another part of you, the part of you that is at least vaguely aware of the historical preference for sons over daughters in Chinese society, is thinking “…’well that was predictable!”3. The movie doesn’t actually go on to question or explore the possible whys behind the mother’s ultimate choice, as that’d be kinda silly since everyone already has good ideas for why. Instead, the choice is accepted and the movie goes on to focus on the lasting repercussions of that choice on the psyches of them all as they grow up and grow old.
Yuan Ni opts to stay in Tangshan, becoming a single mother raising her son Fang Da all by herself. When we next seen Fang Da, he’s become a teenager, a young man, and the entire audience audibly notes that they actually found a real one-armed actor to play him. His mother pressures him to do well in school, so he can get into college, knowing that a crippled son like his has fewer manual labor options in life in which to make a living. He, of course, insists on disobeying her, often skipping school to do odd jobs, ostensibly to help around the house, and eventually sits out the college entrance examinations entirely. Soon after, he and his boys from the ‘hood decide to leave their hometown for some bigger city in search of greater opportunities. His mother is left behind, and she never remarries4. Fang Da is seen starting his career as a one-armed pedicab driver but eventually elevates himself to become a big boss driving around a fancy BMW with a cute wife and enough money to buy brand new apartments for his mom. To his consternation, though, she refuses to move, telling him that if she moves, his dead father and sister won’t be able to find their way home. Aw shucks.
Fang Zeng, the daughter left for dead, is taken away from Tangshan by that PLA solider in the trailer. She is soon picked out and adopted by two PLA soldiers who lovingly raise her as their own. For awhile, she remains mute but eventually opens up, though claiming to not remember what happened during the earthquake. She excels in her studies and eventually gets accepted to a university to study medicine. On her first day there, she meets a boy and some hilarity followed by tragedy ensues. You see, they get together, do the nasty, and he impregnates her. When she refuses to get an abortion, he goes to play basketball5. Properly shamed, he goes looking for her but we’re left to assume that it never amounted to much. Next we know, she has apparently become a single mother and lousy English teacher at the same time6. That is, until she gets married to a much older Canadian man, played by the most rigid and creepiest foreign actor ever.
As you can tell from the plot summary above, the movie not only follows the life of these survivors but also employs a number of arguably cliche plot devices, even tempting viewers towards certain maxims about life, such as hard work and scrappy determination overcoming disability and disadvantage, or the perils of being a fertile woman where unexpected pregnancies can throw everything you worked so hard for down the drain…you know, things of that nature. Speaking of cliches…
The movie comes full circle with the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. This is dramatically but awkwardly shown to audiences with Fang Zeng living in Canada as her husband barrels down the driveway, rushing home from work, as the ominous bearer of the bad news. You get the feeling that you, as the viewer, are supposed to think he gives a shit because he knows profoundly how traumatic the Tangshan Earthquake was for his wife — and, you know, her people — when in reality, if he really did give a shit, the movie never did a good job of establishing that. Instead, he just looks creepy. Watching the news on television, she decides she has to go help and so she does, becoming one of many empathetic Tangshan survivors who have volunteered to help the Sichuan rescue efforts. Surprise surprise, her brother is there too and they are reunited in a fashion not befitting the highly coincidental nature of their meeting.
The next and final chapter of the movie goes about resolving all of the internalized pain and resentment that spawned from the decision the mother Yuan Ni had to make at the beginning. Fang Da brings Fang Zeng back home to their mother. Just as you’re expecting the mother to break down and rush out to embrace the daughter she had thought dead for 32 years, she instead points her to put down her things and continues washing vegetables or something. Yeah, a little unexpected, but when you think about it, probably not that unrealistic of a reaction, what with all the overwhelming emotions and thoughts one must be consumed with. If not that, you’ll notice that in watching the movie, the mother has all sorts of somewhat quirky behaviors and responses that, again, are not all that odd when you think about them just a bit longer7.
But yeah, you’re readying yourself for a showdown at this point, waiting for Fang Zeng to lay into her mother, to tell her mother she had overheard her decision, and pour out all of the pent-up bitterness she has over it. You’re thinking, “All right! Let’s do this!” And then they kinda do it but not really, or at least not really for someone as vindictive as myself, who was expecting much more catharsis than director Feng Xiaogang was giving me. There wasn’t enough narcissistic score-settling and guilt-tripping put on the table. There wasn’t enough wailing. It wasn’t satisfying. The mother got off easy. Bitch.
Wow, good thing I wasn’t born a girl abandoned by her mother following a devastating earthquake, eh?
So, now that I got all of that random expletive-laden commentary of the movie’s plot out of my system…
Let’s get down to exactly why I found the movie ultimately disappointing. The movie has a lot of really heartbreaking, tear-jerking moments, and that’s good because good movies tend to bring about strong emotions in people whether it be sadness, mirth, or contemplation. However, these moments were more heart-breaking and tear-jerking because of the audience’s willingness to identify with them from their own life experiences than with the film’s story-telling planting and fostering such emotions8. Just about the only scene that was powerful directly due to the filmmakers’ efforts was the scene in the trailer. Almost every other scene might touch a nerve but only because that nerve was already exposed before walking into the theatre.
Aftershock takes us through different stages of the characters’ lives but in a somewhat disjointed, even irrelevant, way. Just like my commentary on the plot above, each successive chapter of the story gives you a sense of “and then this happened”, but not a strong sense of it meaningfully contributing to some overarching narrative. You end up wondering what was the significance of this or that scene, wondering just how this or that scene is helping build up our understanding of the characters, and how that then plays into the final climax, the final reunion, the final reckoning between the characters and their coming to terms with the marquee tragedy in their lives, the Tangshan Earthquake.
True, if you get creative, you can craft all sorts of symbolism and import into each scene and every plot device, all befitting a university student graduating summa cum laude with a major in Interpretive Film Studies. Sure, maybe Fang Zeng not getting an abortion was because she didn’t want to abandon her child like her mother did to her. Maybe her eventually marrying a much older foreigner and emigrating abroad is meant to echo how she was adopted and moved away from Tangshan. Whatever, I can do this all day, but seriously? No.
Too many scenes were just kinda there. I won’t say they didn’t contribute anything, but the string of docudrama vignettes seemed to take away from the ultimate story of unfairness, abandonment, resentment, reunion, and reconciliation that the movie very clearly begins and ends with. It begins with the daughter feeling screwed by her mother and ends with her realizing just how much her mother loved her and feeling genuinely remorseful for how much her daughter was screwed, all catalyzed and framed by a historical disaster. That’s great, but there was too much screen time wasted on telling us how each person’s life unfolded. We get that such a traumatic event is going to have consequences or “aftershocks” on the lives of the survivors, that all those scenes showed moments in their lives shaped by what happened as a result of the earthquake but…meh, they often felt underdeveloped, sometimes even forced, sometimes even like random bits of social commentary incongruous with the heartbreaking narrative we’re supposed to be sniffling over.
Overall, the movie was fine and it had its moments but it it was indeed disappointing next to the expectations I developed from watching the trailer. The movie starts with a strong premise and eventually follows up on it at the end, but the middle, well, the middle just felt like a lull. We know the movie is meant to be something of a tragedy, but it just doesn’t have the right timing, rhythm, or even momentum. You walk away feeling that certain lines really moved you to tears, but not the characters and much less the movie overall. Certain moments were sad. Not the movie. Certain moments were good. Not the movie.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. Is it epic? No. Could it have been? Yes…but it wasn’t.
- …the special effects being decent, but no, nowhere as impressive or realistic as Roland Emmerich’s 2012. [↩]
- …or if you’re a narcissist, you can imagine how you’d feel if your mother chose your brother over you. [↩]
- Of course, if you think about it a bit longer, you’ll end up reminding yourself that there are wholly understandable, environmentally compelled, entirely practical reasons for why sons get priority over daughters that only have a wee bit to do with the fact that men are inherently superior to women. [↩]
- …which we later find out is because she feels it would be a disservice to the man who had sacrificed his life for hers, a reason that is monumentally endearing but probably cynically unrealistic. [↩]
- …which is where the step-father confronts him with a bitchslap, asking him why he isn’t out looking for her, a scene of course meant to echo Fang Zeng being abandoned again and reinforcing the step-father’s commitment to righting that wrong. [↩]
- …in a scene where her own daughter gets blamed for breaking something by the little brat boy who actually did it, echoing the minor injustices she bore for her brother at the beginning of the movie. [↩]
- …and she was, by far, the best character in the movie, as Fang Zeng got significantly less adorable after she grew up. [↩]
- Er, did that make any sense at all? [↩]