Friday, August 6, 2010

Aftershock: Remaking History as a Family Affair

Xu Fan as Li Yuanni, shortly after the Tangshan earthquake hits in Feng Xiaogang's "Aftershock."
Recent history is not a realm China's commercial filmmakers are generally too keen to touch. It's hard to depict the witch hunts and famines of the 1950s, the widespread brutality of the Cultural Revolution, or even the social upheavals of the 1980s without casting aspersions on party rule, and casting those kinds of aspersions is not something you do if you want to remain within China's state sanctioned film industry. As far as I'm aware, Feng Xiaogang's new blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshan dadizhen, literally “Tangshan Big Earthquake”) is the first Chinese feature to look at one of the 20th century's worst natural disasters, the 7.8 magnitude quake in 1976 that flattened the northern city of Tangshan and officially killed 242,000 people.

Even after 30 years, Tangshan looms large in China's collective consciousness, and memories of the catastrophe were reanimated by the devastating Sichuan quake in 2008. But even Sichuan was dwarfed by the events of '76, a calamity that was made all the worse by the politics of the time.

China was experiencing the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, and Mao's obsession with national self sufficiency meant all international offers of help were refused, even though China had no trained rescue teams or specialised rescue equipment at the time. Within the PRC, news regarding the magnitude of what had happened was suppressed, and to this day many believe the death toll was much higher than the official figure published in the late 1980s. As Mao's health began to fail (he died in September 1976, just months after the quake), the leadership in Beijing was more focussed on factional infighting than relief efforts, as the so-called “Gang of Four” engaged in a bitter power struggle with Deng Xiaoping. Mao's wife and “gang” member Jiang Qing reportedly said of Tangshan at the time, “There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns 800 million people.”

Unsurprisingly, none of this is touched upon in Aftershock. The brief glimpse we get of pre-quake life in 1976 makes the period seem almost bucolic. We see well-known actress Xu Fan as mother-of-two Li Yuanni, happily walking around in Tangshan's summer heat wearing skimpy shorts and a singlet – hardly a realistic portrayal of China's conservative sartorial tastes circa 1976. When the quake hits, her and her husband are enjoying a carefree late-night romp in the back of her husband's truck. Again, not exactly a realistic take on the way people interacted during the closing stages of the Cultural Revolution. Beyond the odd Mao slogan in the background, politics appears to play no part in daily life – a sleight of hand that continues throughout the film and the three decades of Chinese history the story covers.

Happy times? Tangshan before the quake in 1976.

The protracted quake sequence that hits about 20 minutes into the film is Aftershock's most effective moment, when Feng Xiaogang's big budget special effects are given full play. In this sense the film reminded me of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which also opens with a visceral, effects-heavy sequence before descending into a very conventional drama. Nothing can quite match a big budget movie seen in the cinema for replicating the impact of large-scale, chaotic events, be it the Normandy landings or a massive earthquake. I've never experienced a real tremor, but Feng manages to convey the way these disasters create a topsy-turvy world in seconds as apparently solid buildings crumble and the earth literally cracks open. The sequence is terrifying, and the shots of fleeing residents being struck down by flying debris as entire apartment blocks fall give some insight into just how gruesome the fate of earthquake victims can be.

The remainder of Aftershock deals with the reverberations of the disaster for Li Yuanni's family over the next three decades. The highly contrived plot revolves around a choice Li has to make on the day of the quake, when she finds her two children buried under a concrete slab. Rescuers say she must chose one to save, since lifting the slab will crush the other. After an anguished few minutes she choses her son, but in the next scene we see her clutching her daughter's “corpse” – which incidentally bears no sign of crushing – and begging the child for forgiveness. The daughter, who has heard her mother's choice from beneath the rubble, is laid down beside her dead father, and Li heads to a relief camp with her son. A short time later the trauamatised child awakes and begins to wander the ruins alone, before she is picked up by a passing solider.

The whole sequence really doesn't make sense. If the daughter is crushed by the slab, why does her body bear no sign of damage? If she isn't crushed, why does everyone just assume she's dead? Are we really to believe no one would bother checking whether she was still breathing?

If you can get past this initial contrivance, most of the rest of the film is a passable melodrama  featuring some nice performances, particularly from the PLA officer, played by Chen Daoming, who adopts Li's abandoned daughter (played as an adult by Zhang Jingchu).

Chen Daoming as the kindly PLA officer who adopts Li's lost daughter in "Aftershock."

The life trajectories of Li's son and lost daughter dramatise the changes in Chinese society since 1976, albeit in strictly personlised and de-politicised terms. The brief flowering of liberalism on China's university campuses in the late 1980s, for example, is represented through the daughter's relationship with an older post-graduate, to whom she becomes pregnant. She decides to keep the child, drop out of university and become a single mother. Meanwhile Li's son leaves Tangshan for the greener fields – or rather smokestacks – of China's booming south, rolling back home years later in his own BMW with a gorgeous young wife in the passenger seat.

The hackneyed plot didn't completely lose me until it reached 2008, when we see news of the Sichuan earthquake flashing around the globe. Li's lost daughter, who by this time is married and living in Canada, rushes back to China to help with relief efforts, while Li's millionaire son also heads into the disaster zone with a Tangshan volunteer team. There, amongst the ruins of Sichuan, brother and sister meet and realise they are each other's long lost sibling. They head back to Tangshan for a reunion with their mother, and it's tears all round for a final 20 cathartic minutes of sobbing and family hugs.

Predictably inter-titles at the end dedicate the film to the “great city” of Tangshan which has risen like “a phoenix from the ashes.” The Li family, and by implication the greater family of the Chinese people, have suffered disasters, setbacks and divisions, but in 2008 they are reunited in the face of further adversity and all is forgiven. Even the daughter, who in 1976 is “rejected” by her mother, is brought back into the fold and made to realise her bitterness is entirely misguided, since her mother has suffered profound guilt for 30 years. The message is far from subtle, but Feng's tearjerker approach is certainly effective – I was sitting next to a row of five young women in a Beijing cinema when I watched Aftershock, and every one of them was weeping throughout the film's final half hour.

Given Aftershock's emphasis on the family as the basic unit of the nation, it's worth noting the way foreigners are treated in the film. The first acknowledgment of the outside world comes when Li's daughter visits her step-dad – the PLA officer – and tells him she's getting married. He's pleased, until she adds breathlessly, “Dad... he's a foreigner.” The nervous titter of laughter in the cinema was matched by the stepfather's profoundly shocked expression on screen.

After she is reunited with her real mother in Tangshan, we see the long lost daughter and Li looking through family snaps on an iPhone (product placement is rampant throughout the film). When they reach a picture of the daughter's husband, Li also exclaims, “Oh, he's a foreigner!”

At no point does anyone ask where the foreigner is actually from – apparently it's simply enough to know that he's “foreign.” Although Li's son's relationship to his Chinese wife is explored in some detail, the daughter's foreign husband only appears for a few moments and we learn virtually nothing about him – not even his name. He's never seen in China – although it's implied this is where he meets his wife – nor does he have any contact with his wife's family. He's simply a symbol of “otherness” that Li's daughter marries, partly to denote China's new found openness, but also to illustrate the daughter's alienation from the Chinese family after being rejected as a child.

Tellingly, her husband vanishes from the film once the daughter is back in China and the “true,” exclusively Chinese family is reunited in Tangshan – mother, son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, all grouped around the dead father's grave. As they gaze on the tombstone the daughter says fiercely, “I will be buried here next to my dad, no matter where I live!” Needless to say, the foreign aid that flooded into China after the Sichuan earthquake is never seen or mentioned.

Like last year's Founding of a Republic, Aftershock works hard to affirm that “we” (the film's characters as well as the film's domestic audience) have all suffered through China's disastrous history together. Crucially, this history is never anyone's fault – it is simply China's harsh fate, which the Chinese people have overcome by pulling together and moving forward to build an ever-improving, ever-more-prosperous China. Problems, ambiguities, complications and persecutions are all neatly airbrushed out of the picture.

It's a vision that meshes nicely with the Chinese government's contemporary emphasis on building a strong, united nation, and it's no coincidence that both Aftershock and Founding of a Republic received significant funding from the Chinese authorities. This version of history also neatly alleviates everyone – especially the Chinese Communist Party – of any responsibility for China's past. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in showing how the country's cruel historical “fate” has been overcome, these films reassuringly affirm the nation's unity and strength in present.

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