Foreign hits usually don't translate well outside the home market, and Xiaogang Feng's Aftershock, originally titled Tangshan Great Earthquake is no exception. Premiering in July 2010 in an unprecedented 5,000 theaters and 14 IMAX screeners, Aftershock was very much engineered to be a commercial behemoth - and so it was, with earnings approaching $80 million on a budget in the mid 20s. Back in 2010, The Wall Street Journal dubbed director Xiaogang the most commercially successful Chinese filmmaker, which does explain why this film, beginning with a CGI-assisted depiction of the 4am 1976 earthquake that leveled Tangshan, an industrial city, home to 1.6 million, is a crowd-pleaser and an avowed tearjerker. What rescues Aftershock from obscurity - dropping unceremoniously in October on DVD, more than a year after the film's release isn't much help - is Fang's steady hand which guides actors and balances the maudlin with the self-effacing, finding subtlety in the dynamic tide of China's history.
A story of surviving and growing to acknowledge the emotional and physical scars of a massive natural disaster, the film uses a family torn apart by the quake to encapsulate China's growth in the last half century and beyond. Spanning thirty-two years, from 1976 to 2008, when another massive quake rocked the province of Sichuan, the film opens on a regular day in Tangshan. Li Yuanni (Fan Xu) and her husband play with and eventually put their children to bed and then...the earthquake strikes. Arguably the stand out scene in the film, it is moment-by-moment sheer terror, sudden and deadly. As the dazed Li stumbles in the wreckage, she is faced with a horrific choice - her children are trapped under the ruins, and rescuing one will doom the other.
She chooses her son, Fang Da, but her daughter, Fang Deng, survives. Taken in by a childless husband and wife of the PLA (People's Liberation Army), the little girl blossoms into a young woman (Jingchu Zhang), who cannot return to Tangshan nor forget the choice her mother made. Meanwhile, Li, irrevocably damaged by the immense guilt over her actions on that fateful day, attempts to raise her one-armed son (Chen Li) while dedicating her home life to paying respects to her husband and daughter. Fan Xu's performance frequently threatens to go over-the-top, and her grief deepens with age, but while Xiaogang allows for scenes of emotional outpouring, Aftershock has a strong handle on the historical background that surrounds the trio, and a surprisingly light touch when it comes to events that defined Chinese history.
Xiaogang rarely intrudes with fancy cinematography, though the film is definitively large-scale. Rather, he gives room to performances and allows several scenes that observe history in the making or allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. It's hard to say more without allowing for spoilers, but the family lives through turbulent decades in their country's history and Xiaogang beautifully portrays changes of the guard in government and an evolving culture, style of dress and architecture. It's a film that is content to shed many a tear but utilizes the cast effectively to make the most outwardly manipulative moments feel at least minimally earned. A stand-out supporting performance that requires mention is that of Daoming Chen as the adoptive father, the expressive actor needing little dialogue to communicate volumes.
This review has been centered around the director and for good reason - this reviewer has been another film by him, Hamlet-by-way-of-Wuxia The Banquet, and found it to be a gorgeously designed, well acted adaptation that exhibited a careful eye for composition. Most notable was a rarely showy, yet identifiable vision guiding the production that no doubt led others who've seen more of the helmer's filmography to compare him to Spielberg. While Aftershock is hardly on the same level as the latter's best films, it does show signs of a director who understands how to draw in the masses. An impressive foreign entry that unjustifiably flew under the radar, the film deserves a look.
A serviceable but hardly impressive 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is featured on this DVD. Colors are largely muted but that may be a feature of the cinematography (a scene late in the film exhibits a vibrant array). Nighttime scenes especially suffer as blacks are murky and poorly defined.
English and Mandarin subtitles are included but no audio options are available. The 2.0 mix that is presented is again acceptable, but for a film that opens with such a gripping set piece and features a stirring score, it's in poor form not to feature a 5.1 mix at least.
Zilch, which is especially odd considering the deluge of press material that no doubt exists for this film -even one interview with the director or cast would have broadened this reviewer's understanding of the film. The lack of a featurette on the CGI that renders the quake is also regrettable. This is a film that begs for superficial extras at the least and none of that is present here.
If you've got no patience for character-focused tearjerkers that put drama ahead of plausibility, Aftershock is just not going to cut it. But as a expansive historical epic told through a tiny prism, it's an accomplishment and an enjoyable experience that never drags and manages to feel thoroughly rewarding until a final coda that essentially pounds the message of the film into your head. Recommended.
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