Aftershock (Tangshan Dadizhen) is a 2010 Chinese (mandarin) film by Feng Xiaogang which recreates the tragic events of the 1976 earthquake that destroyed Tangshan City, as well as the years of recovery that followed. It eventually became the highest-grossing locally-made film in China and was selected to represent China in the 83rd Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film but didn’t make the final shortlist. Aftershock was also notable as being the first ‘big commercial’ IMAX film outside the United States. Is this movie another disaster spectacle in the vein of Emmerich’s disaster films or a movie that’s worthy of its countless accolades.
Aftershock is based on a novel by Zhang Ling which focuses on the traumatic effect of the Tangshan earthquake which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and at the same time mirroring the political changes in China in the 1980s and 90s. At the center of the story is a mother who is told by the rescue workers that her two twins, daughter Fang Deng and son Fang Da, are trapped at the bottom of a collapsed building. Things turn tragic when only one can be saved and the mother chooses her son. Eventually the building collapses, the son is saved and the daughter is pulled from the rubble. However, the daughter miraculously survives after being proclaimed dead and here the real story begins. The girl is adopted by another family but the years that follow leads her to a road of pain, tragedy, and ultimately forgiveness. I have not read the novel let alone found a copy of it, so I cannot compare it with this film. But it wouldn’t surprise me if this movie is considered among the best adaptations of a Chinese book.
The opening salvo of this film is a recreation of the Tangshen earthquake in the first 20 minutes. All the ingredients of a disaster spectacle are here. Buildings collapsing, people dying, and utter devastation have never been this terrifying or realistic. It’s so remarkably intense it puts to shame the outlandish scenes of 2012, or The Day After Tomorrow. Thankfully, Aftershock avoids turning this into another disaster movie bomb as the scenes immediately following the earthquake are gut wrenching and emotionally moving. This early on in the film, some people will already need a box of tissues. The film then moves on to the painful recovery of both the characters and the city as well. Here, Aftershock takes a different turn but one that makes this movie even more moving. It is reminiscent of other Asian drama films about moving on and forgiveness but the movie keeps the melodrama in check for its own good.
One caveat though, this film has been mobbed by a lot of critics for its Communist propaganda. I don’t know if this was in the novel, but considering this film also tackles the socio-political changes China underwent at that time, a little dose of red propaganda may not hurt but if you have an aversion to all things communist or political, you will find this irritating.
The characters here are very well developed and by the end of the film, you will feel a certain attachment to them thanks to the capable acting delivered by the cast. There are some exceptional scenes but the acting generally won’t win any awards.
Aftershock’s production values are awe-inspiring. The extremely beautiful lensing and cinematography by Lu Yue (who also did the equally beautiful Red Cliff) is a sight to behold. It’s just sad though that this film didn’t get an IMAX release here. The special effects, done by Chinese, Korean, French and the New Zealand WETA teams (who did LOTR and King Kong) are stunning (although some look a bit too CG-ish) while Wang Li-guang delivers a sweeping, memorable score which will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. This film with a budget of 25 million dollars puts to shame Hollywood films costing 5x more.
Ultimately, Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock is very easy to recommend. It has everything, from intense drama, special effects, beautiful cinematography and a sweeping musical score. This is how disaster movies should be made and I hope Emmerich and co. have watched this film. If you like brainless disaster movies, this might not appeal to you, but if you’re in the mood to watch an Asian masterpiece, then this should be on your priority list.