China Lion // 2010 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // December 10th, 2011
Twenty-three seconds. Thirty-two years.
At the time of writing this review, Aftershock is the second highest grossing Chinese film in its home country with 673 million yuan (approximately $103 million USD) at the domestic box office. Compared against the most popular Hollywood imports, it comes in well behind Avatar (1.37 billion yuan) but handily beats 2012 (466 million yuan) and Inception (457 million yuan). China Lion Film Distribution and U.S. distributor New Video bring the foreign blockbuster to North American viewers.
In 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake strikes the industrial city of Tangshan leaving devastation and a death toll of 240,000. After seeing her husband perish in the rubble, Li Yuanni (Xu Fan) must make an impossible choice when rescuers tell her only one of her twin children can be saved. Not knowing who is still alive under a concrete slab, she chooses her son, Fang Da. Clinging to life, the daughter Fang Deng hears her mother's decision.
Left for dead, Fang Deng awakens amid a field of bodies. A childless couple, rescuers with the People's Liberation Army, later adopt her. Under their loving care, the girl grows up to be a medical student, played by Zhang Jingchu (Rush Hour 3). However, the knowledge that her mother abandoned her in the rubble leaves Fang Deng with a considerable psychological scar. Meanwhile, Li Yuanni and her son (Li Chen) have relocated elsewhere in the city but are likewise haunted by the toll of the earthquake. Fang Da has little patience for school and his career prospects are diminished because he only has one arm. Unable to forgive herself for the heavy decision of that day, Li Yuanni just can't move on with her life. The movie follows these characters' lives during the 32 years following the Tangshan earthquake until their separate paths meet again.
As far as emotional dramas are concerned, Aftershock is a Grade-A tearjerker. It is guaranteed to make you cry, unless you have no heart. Certainly, the movie is melodramatic, the direction is sometimes manipulative, the script goes in a few predictable directions and the music checks obvious emotional beats. Still, it works exceptionally well for what it intends to do. Even on my second viewing of the movie, fully knowing what is to come, the key emotional moments still packed a massive punch. Director Feng Xiaogang doesn't do anything groundbreaking with this material but he doesn't arrive at those touching moments cheaply. He gives us likeable, sympathetic characters and when catastrophe enters their lives, we want to see them overcome obstacles. Even without the inevitability of the family's reunion, their stories manage to keep our interest.
A defining characteristic of Aftershock is its not-so-subtle political angle. The story begins with the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 but viewers will be reminded of the more recent 2008 Sichuan shakeup. The movie celebrates the resilience of Chinese citizens. In spite of their grief and collective loss, these folks make up a selfless, courageous community that can truly get the job done. There are no villains in this movie.
If the protagonists are everyday people making the best of their situation, the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army are the heroes of the movie. Responding to two natural disasters, the Chinese military is quickly mobilized, organized, courteous and effective. The infertile married soldiers -- public servants dealt an even worse hand -- are surely the kindest people ever. Quite possibly, Fang Deng is better off with her foster parents. Her foster father (Chen Daoming, Hero) ranks among the most patient and loving dads in the movies. He nicely diffuses the situation when jealousy and suspicion emerges in the house and he maintains his cool when he catches a male grad student in his daughter's dorm room.
If the story were only concerned with inflicting tragedy and hardship on its characters before an emotional payoff, I would be much less patient with the movie. The easy way to tell this story would have been to have the siblings try to find each other. Then the screenplay could have spun its wheels while they repeatedly missed one another until happenstance provides assistance. But Aftershock does something quite different by having Fang Deng decide not to be reunited with her mother. The characters' grief and anger and how those feelings influence their lives for the next 32 years is what lies at the heart of this movie. Feng Xiaogang has ably fashioned a big-budget disaster movie and a melodrama that plays to the masses but he's also given depth to the emotional journey of these characters. The heart-wrenching and heart-warming moments are well earned.
The picture quality is respectable on this DVD with pleasing color saturation and nice contrast. Darker scenes reveal some grain and a few instances of digital artifacts but neither is especially distracting. Some wide shots seem a little soft but this may be intentional to hide the seams of the CGI effects. The stereo sound works just fine for the movie. Dialogue is clear and the music swells are nicely balanced so they never take over scenes. Optional English or Chinese subtitles are easy to read (though I admit that I can't actually read the Chinese subtitles). Disappointingly, the New Video release offers no special features.
With a running time of two and one-quarter hours, the movie could have trimmed back on one or two superfluous scenes designed to wring more tears from viewers. There is also one scene set in Canada, where Fang Deng relocates, that sticks out like a sore thumb. Just one of the reasons for this is the wooden acting by the sole Caucasian actor in the cast. It is such a jarringly awkward sequence that I would recommend watching this movie just to witness that scene. I wonder if a different director and crew filmed it? It deserves to be analyzed for how a scene can work so poorly with the rest of the movie.
The popular appeal of Aftershock isn't surprising since it's a well-acted melodrama that follows the travails of a family from disaster to reconciliation. Witnessing the tenacity and triumph of everyday people is a rewarding, cathartic viewing experience. Knowing that the Chinese military will be there to help citizens in their darkest hour is also comforting.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: China Lion
* 2.30:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated