Man vs. Nature tales, one standard expression of which in cinema is the disaster film, can be tricky. The lack of an intelligent antagonist or actively malevolent agent can drain some of the drama from the situation. China's Aftershock avoids this problem by being a disaster movie that really isn't about the disaster, but rather its long term effects on those caught up in it.
The central act of the film, the act from which everything springs, and which shapes the growth and personality of all the main characters, is a decision made by a mother, Yuan (Fan Xu). It is every parent's nightmare, choosing which child to save. The setting is Tangshan, China, 1976. In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, which in reality killed over 200,000 people, Yuan's husband is dead, and her twin children, son Fang Da (Chen Li) and daughter Fang Deng (Jungchu Zhang) are trapped in the rubble of their apartment building. As neighbors struggle to shift the rubble, a man tells her that because of the way a slab of concrete is lying, to free one of her children would be to crush the other. She must choose to save her son or her daughter. After several minutes of denial and refusal to choose, the men are about to leave to help others. She chooses. Save her son.
Her daughter Fang Deng hears the deliberations as they occur, and her mother's decision to save her brother, a moment that will affect her for the rest of her life. Because, despite what the man said, she is not killed when they shift the rubble to rescue Fang Da. She is not even terribly injured. But her mother rushes away with her brother, not wanting to linger at the site of her daughter's supposed grave. Days later, Fang Deng is picked up by the army and placed with all the other orphaned children, and eventually adopted by a childless husband and wife, both military officers.
Aftershock then proceeds to tell the parallel tales of Fang Da and Fang Deng, called Wang Deng, or the diminutive Ya Ya by her adoptive family. Da drops out of school and starts his own business. Deng studies medicine. Yuan spends her days reliving the agony of that fateful day when she had to choose between her children, refusing to move from her modest home even when Da becomes a successful businessman, afraid that the spirits of her husband and daughter will not be able to find their way to any new abode. The film is built up of mostly quiet moments, times of stress and pain, and bits of joy, experienced by the separated siblings. Da lost his arm in the earthquake, and Deng lost her family, and these wounds grow numb at times, but never truly heal, until another earthquake decades later brings both Da and Deng to the same city as a part of the relief effort.
The aftershocks referenced in the title are the emotional aftershocks felt by the twins and their mother, affecting them for the duration of their lives. The viewer comes to know these characters quite well, through the short scenes and vignettes from their lives. Yuan rejecting the friendly advances of a co-worker, a decade or more after her husband's death. Da giving a free cab ride to a soldier who had helped with the Tangshan relief effort (who ironically happens to be Deng's adoptive father, though the two never know the connection.) Deng quietly resting her head on her dying step-mother's breast in the cancer ward, or telling her boyfriend that he will never understand why she has to keep their baby, even though he would prefer she didn't. The performances are utterly honest, and deal head on with the issues and conflicts that emerge among emotionally damaged people, even when they love each other deeply. Neither Da nor Deng are portrayed as saints or without flaw. Both are desperately human, and thus easy to connect with for the rest of us.
While nothing as sentimental or mawkish as a tearjerker, Aftershock deals with deep emotion and pain, pain that most of us can have no conception of. As such, the occasional tight throat or threat of tears welling up are not unexpected. But the film does not work by manipulation or cheating. We never feel that the filmmakers are twisting the knife or taking delight in the evocation of these raw feelings. But the film is very effective, and impressive in its clarity. The emotional underpinnings of the story are well supported both by outstanding performances (the occasional awkward line read notwithstanding) and special effects. The scenes at the beginning of the earthquake and its devastation are very well executed, and convey the awesome power of the event. That power is an appropriate metaphor for the earthquake's effects on Deng, Da and Yuan, and how they in turn affect others. Aftershock is a very good film. Highly recommended.