Protect your most beloved.
- Zhang Jing Chu as Fang Deng/Wang Deng
- Li Chen as Fang Da
- Xu Fan as Li Yuan Ni
- Chen Dao Ming as Wang De Qing
- Chen Jin as Dong Gui Lan
- Director: Feng Xiao Gang
- Running Time: 135 minutes
- Release date: July 22, 2010
During the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake that traps her twin children under rubble, Yuan Ni is asked to make a horrific choice: which one of her children to save. She eventually picks her son, and thereby essentially killing her daughter herself. The young girl miraculously survives and is adopted by a loving couple, but the memories of her mother picking to save her brother over her haunts her all throughout her life. 32 years after the earthquake, the twins’ lives have diverged down separate paths, but their mother’s decision all those years ago affects them in adulthood that in ways that are difficult to overcome.
For a film that takes its Chinese title from the devastating 1976 Tangshan Earthquake*, there is surprisingly very little time spent documenting the namesake event. Instead, it’s the film’s English title that communicates more of what this movie is really about. Bookended by two earthquakes, the aforementioned ’76 Tangshan and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the movie spends the bulk of its running time chronicling the lives of one family whose lives were forever changed by the mere seconds of earth-shattering destruction. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but for those who were thinking this was your run-of-the-mill disaster movie…you might wanna look elsewhere. What you will get from Aftershock, however, is a heartbreaking and realistic look of what life looks like when all you’ve ever known is resentment and regret.
Chock it up to favoritism or a Chinese culture that favors males over females, it wasn’t all that surprising when the mother in this film picked her son over the daughter to be saved. Since the beginning moments of the film, the writers have been littering clues here and there about how the mother favors the twin boy more. So, when the rescuers asked her which of her children to essentially kill, it was all but confirmed who it’d be. Nevertheless, it wasn’t any less sad or heartbreaking to watch the mother try to process the reality of the situation. And as if that wasn’t enough to have you reaching for the kleenex box, watching the little girl silently cry as she listens to her mom make her choice will surely do it. For the first third of Aftershock, it’s very easy and understandable to feel resentment towards the mom. As the movie progresses, however, those feelings of resentment turns to sympathy and understanding.
The writers and filmmakers of Aftershock make it abundantly clear that this decision is one that haunts every single person that it affected. The mom willingly resigns to the fact that she has to pay for her “sin,” and refuses anything good in her life. When Fang Da, the son, offers to buy her a new house, she tells him that she’s content in her rundown home because she doesn’t want to move away from her late husband and daughter. In reality, this is her way of punishing herself for what she did. Likewise, she refuses to remarry or even entertain the idea of finding a companion because she feels overwhelming guilt towards her husband who sacrificed himself for her.
On the other hand, the twins live very different but also similar lives. Both struggle with feelings of inferiority and not being wanted. Although Fang Da was kept alive, his mom is forever preoccupied with the thoughts of his father and sister. He could be standing in front of her, but all she will ever see is his dead sister when she looks at him. And because she knows that her mother didn’t want her, Fang Deng spends her life never getting too close to anyone, in fear of history repeating itself. Her conscious attempts to keep everyone at an arm’s length makes her relationship with her foster parents feel distant and unfamiliar.
While I appreciated the interesting examination of everyone’s psyche and personality in the aftermath of the earthquake, where this movie failed for me is the lack of a proper climax or culmination. Although Aftershock is not an overly long movie, I felt like I was constantly waiting for that moment where everyone and their stories would meet and come to a head. Alas, that moment never happened. The filmmakers’ decision to chronicle the 32 years after the earthquake somehow made it even more difficult to have a streamlined plot with effective pacing. Instead, scenes cut in and out of each other in a very choppy fashion, and plot points would be introduced and discarded in mere seconds. Even the end of the movie felt like it was abruptly cut short. I think some of the difficulty in finding continuity within the film came from the fact that the same actors and actresses played characters that spanned a timeline of 32 years. Just look at the mom as an example. The actress is 48 years old, so to have her play both a middle-aged mother of 2 and an elderly grandmother is way too much of a stretch.
Aftershock is a good film, but it’s not great. I appreciate the cinematic elements of it, especially during the earthquake scenes, and understand why it’d make a good IMAX film. But the emotions that the movie relied so heavily on were just too subtle and quiet. This isn’t one of those movies that you have to be glued to your seat to enjoy. If you do get up, however, it might be hard to regain interest in the plot. If the pacing was done a bit better, a lot of the plot points would have perhaps made more sense and had greater resonance. Nevertheless, Aftershock is a moving film that highlights how lives can forever be altered by just mere moments.
*Aftershock is dedicated to the victims of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake. It is the second deadliest earthquake in modern history.
This & That:
- Aftershock was the first foreign commercial IMAX film, and successfully became a box office success in China.
- The film was selected as China’s Best Foreign Language Film entry for the 83rd Academy Awards, but did not make the final shortlist.
- The movie won the Best Feature Film award at the 4th Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and Chen Dao Ming won Best Actor for his role as Fang Deng’s adoptive father.
- Zhang Jing Chu was in the latest Mission Impossible movie, Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation, that stars Tom Cruise. The movie currently has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.