The 1976 Tangshan earthquake was the second deadliest earthquake in recorded history. Of Tangshan’s one million inhabitants, fully one quarter of them were killed, and many more injured. Aftershock is an account of the human tragedies that follow upon such a disaster, and a fitting tribute to honor the hundreds of thousands of dead. The “aftershock” of the title refers not to an actual earthquake aftershock, but to the shocks suffered by the surviving family members of the victims.
In particular, we follow one family, initially consisting of mother and father and seven-year-old twin children, a boy and a girl. When the earthquake strikes, the father is killed and both children are pinned down under a slab of concrete. The mother is told by the rescue workers that the slab is positioned so that only one of the children can be saved, because by lifting one end of the slab to get one child free, the other end will crush the other. They demand that she makes the kind of choice no mother should have to make: which one of her children to save. Being forced to make the choice, she chooses to save the boy, who loses an arm in the process. The girl, afterwards, is placed next to her father and left for dead. However, she was only unconscious, and ends up being adopted by a couple from the People’s Liberation Army, who assisted in the rescue efforts.
The girl, Deng, underneath the rubble, heard her mother choose her brother instead of her. She grew up with her foster parents, feeling unwanted, and never wanting to contact her real mother. Only in 2008, when another great earthquake happens in Sichuan, does she feel compelled to join the rescue work. Confronted with situations similar to what she lived through when she was seven, she finally comes to understand what her mother went through. She meets her brother among the rescue workers and is subsequently reunited with her mother.
The drama has a deeply emotional impact and is very well acted. We follow the lives of all the relations across three decades, and also experience the development and continuity of Chinese society. The movie has an epic sweep during which we are made privy to many elements of Chinese culture, from the reverence for the dead and to the vagaries of family relations (apparently the grandparents often demand to be the ones to bring up their grandchildren), always with the human emotions taking center stage.
The well-produced movie succeeds in everything it sets out to do. It shows what happens to an ordinary family during such an unimaginable disaster, and simultaneously chronicle the overall cultural and economic development of the entire nation. On the one hand it is a celebration of civilization, and on the other a close character study of a single family who is forever marked by what happens when civilization crumbles. Consequently it makes both the sufferings and the triumphs of the Chinese people come alive for us, and ultimately the movie itself becomes a heartfelt reverential commemoration of the 240,000 Tangshan earthquake victims; an integral part of the monument that was erected to them following the 2008 Sichuan quake.
The central character of Deng is played by Jingchu Zhang, whom I have seen in several movies before (Seven Swords, Jade Warrior and Rush Hour 3). She successfully conveys all of the strong emotion required by the touching tale, and the other actors are good too. All in all, a grand cinematic achievement.
The DVD has no extras, and English subtitles are hardcoded.
Director: Xiaogang Feng
Cast: Jingchu Zhang, Fan Xu, Chen Li, Zi-feng Zhang, Daoming Chen
Runtime: 127 min