Released in 2010 to a general chorus of audience approval – particularly in China, where it was a huge box office success—Aftershock is, to date, one of China’s most expensive film productions, costing around $25 million. Such was the brouhaha that greeted it in its homeland, it was even submitted for consideration as China’s official entry for the foreign language Oscar at the 83rd Academy Awards. All sounds dandy so far, right? Well, not quite. The film, despite its impressive scope, failed to ignite enough Oscar interest to secure final contention, and I can see why. I had very high hopes for Aftershock, and I must admit I was rather disappointed after viewing it.
Centring on the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Tangshan, China in 1976, Aftershock examines not only the physical effects of that seismic event, but also the familial reverberations, too. Billed initially as an epic historical and family drama, it’s therefore slightly confusing to be confronted with the blurb on the DVD cover that promises ‘a turbo-charged blockbuster’ and ‘incredible special effects’. Um, we are talking about a genuine natural disaster here aren’t we? the one that killed around a quarter of a million people? Yes, we are. In which case, the omens for measured and respectful sensitivity aren’t looking good, are they?
The nucleus of the story begins with a parent’s worst nightmare: choosing whom among your beloved offspring to save. Yuan Ni and her husband have two small children, Da, a boy, and Deng, a girl. When the earthquake strikes (cueing plenty of dubiously-choreographed mayhem, more of which in a moment), both the children are trapped, unconscious, under the rubble of the small family apartment. Yuan Ni’s husband is killed whilst attempting an initial rescue, and when the emergency services arrive, they ascertain that due to the position of the debris, only one child can be saved. Agonisingly, and in the manner of Sophie’s Choice, Yuan Ni chooses her son, Da. Unbeknownst to her, however, her daughter Deng has already regained consciousness, and hears her mother making the decision. As it turns out, Deng later emerges alive from the rubble, without her mother’s knowledge, and so begins an epic saga of family fragmentation, reconstitution and finally, some kind of redemption.
Whilst Aftershock’s technical high points are very admirable – special mention should go to both Yue Lu’s steely and impeccably-framed cinematography and to Hue Tingxiao’s very impressive production design—it is overall a rather a meandering piece with a very uneven tone, and seems unable to decide whether it’s an episodic, mature and sensitive drama (it reminded me a little of Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun here and there), or a Hollywood CGI extravaganza in the mould of Armageddon, punctuated as it is with all manner of stylised action sequences.
In fact, and perhaps worst of all, the film’s portrayal of the major suffering that actually took place appears to have been merely a catalyst for engineering—largely during the earthquake sequences—a cynical IMAX experience, something I find slightly distasteful (it doesn’t end here either; Aftershock is apparently the first of three large scale Chinese films that IMAX are having a hand in).
That’s a shame, because Aftershock certainly starts promisingly, like a tentative whisper. Take, for example, the very first images that appear: onto a silent black screen, tiny, blurred specks of white light materialise and begin to form, slowly gaining in substance, size and clarity, until they come into focus and are revealed to be the opening credits.
As if visually pre-empting the drama to come, I found these initial moments subtle, sensitive and strangely haunting. It’s as if we are afforded the point of view of those poor souls who were trapped – in their thousands—under tangled wreckage and building rubble, the little spots of brightness possibly representing the daylight that we see swim gradually into focus above us; furthermore, as the points of light transform into small Chinese letters, we are regaining consciousness, compos mentis at the moment the film begins, coming to our senses with the realisation that we are entombed in a world of trouble, literally and figuratively, as those in the film will be. It’s a simple but portentous opening, and it works excellently.
So, why doesn’t Aftershock manage to sustain this reflective thoughtfulness and invention throughout its entire narrative? I think to some extent commercial considerations have come into play and added a note of mainstream frivolity to the proceedings that are completely at odds with the very serious subject matter. Indeed, not to labour the point—and perhaps I’m being unnecessarily oversensitive—but I just find the idea of choreographing genuine historical misery and suffering into shots that are cynically styled to create maximum excitement and action to be a little off-kilter in terms of taste (like putting the tagline ‘he came, he saw, he kicked Nazi ass’ on the promotional blurb for the infinitely superior Schindler’s List). A popcorn movie aesthetic is, in my opinion, totally unsuited to a complex drama based on real, tragic events.
The human drama is also rather hollow anyway, and unashamedly attempts to wring every last tear from those willing to succumb to the film’s simplistic soap opera charms (I’m ashamed to confess that during the film’s opening salvo of emotional histrionics, I had to turn the DVD sound down for a moment as I was getting so irritated with the incessant screaming and screeching).Aftershock seems to lack a real emotional resonance, a heart if you will, perhaps because it all seems so contrived. The poignancy just doesn’t ring true for me, I’m afraid, and that the film was based on such genuine tragedy makes it all the more disappointing. Those who lost their lives haven’t really gained a sensitive eulogy with this film, sadly.
It often feels as though director Feng Xiaogang thought about how best to orchestrate the mayhem with spectacle and international dollars foremost in his mind, and then worked in the overwrought family angle when he remembered there may be some major international awards and critical respectability on the horizon. I hate to say it – and doing so brings to mind Ricky Gervais’ comment to Kate Winslet in Extras about holocaust films and Oscars – but if Xiaogang had kept his narrative consistently grim and realistic, he’d probably have fared a lot better with the Academy.
So, if you’re looking for a sensitive, multi-layered drama about the fragility of humanity and the overwhelming power of nature, Aftershock doesn’t really deliver, despite its scope, budget and intention (actually, its sheer scale may be one of the reasons it doesn’t deliver). Putting bums on seats means, in commercial terms, offering more than just engaging drama, and as soon as the over-the-top visuals began I groaned a little, knowing right then that Aftershock was going to be an inconsistently-driven vehicle.
IMAX (which was Aftershock’s primary format) and natural disaster aren’t comfortable bedfellows in my book, even if the best intentions are there and the human story far outweighs the Hollywood silliness.That said, if you’re after the kind of film that chooses to juxtapose decade-spanning overwrought family strife with sequences that feature teams of stuntmen enthusiastically flinging themselves clear of falling CGI masonry, well, Aftershock will probably be your bag. It just wasn’t mine.
Finally, for a film that touts itself as a “turbo-charged blockbuster epic” (not my words), the extras certainly aren’t turbo-charged, because, incredibly for a big budget effort like this, there aren’t any on the disc.