None of the answers in Fallen City seem simple, as the film offers three stories of survivors after the 2008 earthquake in Beichuan.
"I'm not really sure of the meaning of home anymore. To me, home is me and my mom, but if we both miss our old home, we can't really give each other security." Standing on a hillside, his horizon aslant, 15-year-old Hong ponders his unknowable future and also, his precarious present. He and his mother have survived the 2008 earthquake that destroyed the town of Beichuan, but still, he misses his father.
Soft-spoken and long-limbed, Hong appears in Fallen City, filmed over three years following the earthquake that killed some two-thirds of population of Beichuan and destroyed 80 percent of the buildings. His grief is both apparent and submerged. "A stepfather cannot be a real father," Hong says near the start of Zhao Qi's film, as you watch a candle in a yellow kite rising into the dark sky. Such rituals of remembrance punctuate the lives of survivors, but still, they feel voids. "Alive or dead," he says, "I will never forget my dad."
Here the film cuts to the kitchen, a close-up of his mother, just 36 when she lost her husband, chopping vegetables. Hong goes on, "If a woman doesn't have a man beside her, life can be very lonely." Hong's stepfather, who lost his wife in the earthquake, sits with the family at dinner in the next scene. "Sometimes I'd rather be alone," Hong confesses: in a set of two long, stationary shots, the boy walks from their new home outside Beichuan in the darkness of morning, then waits for the bus, rubble piled high on both sides of the road.
This sequence indicates the film's approach, which might be best described as elegantly observational. Each frame, precisely shot by Shaoguang Sun, seems perfectly composed, even artful, and also allusive, feelings of frustration, dread, and, sometimes, tentative hope seeming almost to hover at the edges. When Hong's mother or her father presses him about his bad grades, the camera alternates among close shots of their faces, long shots that reveal pained distances between them even in tight spaces, and also, deep focus images, a bed in his new high school dorm room stretching between Hong and his mom, her face stern as she asks about his exams.
"Why don't you tell me if you study or not?" she asks, interrupting his quiet laughter at a TV that's offscreen. His face goes blank, not quite looking at her. "Do you want to study or play around?" she presses. "It's a simple answer."
Or not. None of the answers in Fallen City seems simple. The film offers two other stories over the three years, one focused on the Pengs, who have lost their 11-year-old daughter. Initially, both are inconsolable, devoted to their daughter's memory, climbing over rocks and wreckage to visit the site where she might have died, until soldiers stop them, insisting that new rules disallow their ritual, burning paper money, at that precise spot. Again, the camera watches from a few steps back, the argument impossible, the road where they face off made of mud, deep truck tracks making it difficult even to stand, let alone walk.
"We've got things in order this year," explains a man in uniform, his cap brim shadowing his face. Why do you need to cause trouble?" Still, the Pengs try to pass. "I'll be punished if I let you go," a soldier says.
It occurs to you that everyone will be punished here. Even as the Pengs begin to sort out how to move forward ("Maybe they're right," Mrs. Peng suggest, regarding advice she's received, "My daughter will be unhappy to see us living an unhappy life"), and they appear in a montagey series of images (smiling, eating, gardening, their feet and hands together), memories, and unexpressed guilt, remain.
Mrs. Peng finds a job cooking at a kindergarten, where little children fill the cafeteria and play-yard. At first they visit the Population Planning Center, as they wonder about starting a new family, and then, when she finds a new job in Shanghai, for more money, Mr. Peng begs her not to go, playing with her, cajoling gently, as she packs. At last, he helps her select which photos of their daughter to take with her.
Li Guihua also looks for solace, or distraction, in work. Her paraplegic mother is so traumatized that she's no longer able to speak, a year after the earthquake. Li Guihua takes a job organizing applications for new housing, in the new city, extolled on TV and radio in increasing numbers -- of homes, of shops, of vehicles and jobs.
But again, and again, survivors look back as they look forward, and Li Guihua's story takes a surprising turn that underlines her confusion and lack of options. Images of her mother over time show her jaw increasingly slack, her gaze increasingly unfocused. Li Guihua feeds her, tries to engage her, and worries. It's hard to find home anymore. And yet, that's exactly what they must do.