A few years back, a couple of friends of mine were running their own meme where they described the movie tastes of folks in our social circle by picking two defining words. Mine were ‘Chinese’ and ‘long.’ Well, smart alecks, if that’s so true, how come I don’t like Aftershock? Because it’s both. It’s excruciatingly long and it’s also very Chinese. In fact, it’s the most popular film in the history of the Chinese box office. It’s a horribly mawkish manhandling of a nation’s shared tragedy, and I’d get all on a high horse about the tastes of the Chinese people, but my countrymen flocked to see what they claimed to be themselves portrayed in The Blind Side, so clearly national misidentification knows no borders.
Aftershock begins with the 1976 earthquake that destroyed Tangshan. Though it’s rendered like a sci-fi disaster flick in this movie, complete with purple skies and computer animated victims, it’s actually a very real calamity that killed close to 250,000 people. I tell you this now because if, like me, you go in not knowing that, (1) you will be disappointed when you realize that the movie is not a disaster epic, and (2) you will feel terrible about how much you’ve snickered through the preceding 135 minutes when the end cards give you the actual facts. Ooops.
Not that Aftershock is based on true events, at least not after the ground stops shaking. Director Xiaogang Feng, who previously took liberties with Hamlet in his more interesting costume drama The Banquet, instead tells a story of what happened to one family, and the Sophie’s Choice-like decision that defined their next several decades. A mother (Fan Xu) loses her husband in the quake, and seemingly one of her children. She is told that pulling her son (Chen Li) out of the wreckage will kill his twin sister (Jingchu Zhang, John Rabe). Running out of time, mom chooses the boy. Unbeknownst to both of them, the sister isn’t crushed, and thinking she has been rejected, the little girl says nothing when a pair of married soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army adopts her. The splintered families then live their lives separately, with Feng checking in on them every ten years, leading up to the fateful 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan Province. Cue the tearful reunion. Alternate title: The Joyless Bad Luck Club.
In terms of melodrama, it’s not a particularly bad narrative outline. Great novels have been built around similar mishaps and happenstance. If done well, the scope of time and the sweep of emotion can make for great tragedy and even relief; Aftershock is not done well. It’s big entertainment aimed at the sentimental cheap seats. The climax, which is meant to redden the eyes and dampen the cheeks, complete with slow-motion heroism and the omnipresent overwrought orchestral score, ends up being a contrived rah-rah cheer, bordering on nationalistic propaganda. Consider it as such, and the rest of the film falls into a lockstep sense: neither twin has really suffered all that greatly because of the ’76 trembler. They both grew up to live very successful lives despite their physical and emotional handicaps. Their tale of struggle and woe is absent the struggle, and so their woe a hollow rattle where the heart should be. The actors perform their roles nobly and with feeling, but there is no dragging this shallow script into the artistic deep end, no matter how hard they pull. This is a whitewash meant to rally the citizens behind their own national self-worth, and it’s about as devoid of real meaning as that sounds.
I suppose this is where I insert a ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ quote to exit this review, and it would certainly apply. I don’t think I’ve employed this cliché in my professional career as a reviewer, and surely everybody in the field gets to use it once. Yet I barely have the will to make anything more out of it than this. Aftershock is that colossal of a waste of time.