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Aftershock -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- The desire to impart Confucian values of parental love and filial duty overrides the need to make a spectacle of death and destruction in "Aftershock," Feng Xiaogang's $25 million summer blockbuster about the psychological scars of survivors of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake that claimed about 242,400 lives.

Although the state-of-the-art effects of the brief earthquake scenes lend the film an epic feel, and the story arc clearly harbors ambitions of encapsulating China's strenuous road to prosperity through one family's saga over 32 years, "Aftershock" ultimately is a small family melodrama revolving around perennial themes of love, forgiveness and coming-of-age. Feng ditches his usual sharp-tongued humor and feisty characters to concentrate on stimulating the tear ducts through traditional but polished storytelling techniques.

A seismic impact on the domestic boxoffice is to be expected as the film is opened on more than 3,500 screens throughout China, the widest release in that country to date. It also will be the first Chinese-language film to be shown on Imax nationwide. At least, Feng would have no problem breaking his record of $53.7 million for "If You Are the One." Audiences should welcome the catharsis "Aftershock" provides for the national trauma suffered during 2008's Sichuan Earthquake from the way it links the 1976 and 2008 catastrophes in the plot. The film's heavy slant on drama rather than action means smaller tremors in the international market. Asian territories, especially earthquake-prone Japan, would be more responsive.

The story commences July 28, 1976, the day of the earthquake, in Tangshan, an industrial city 140 kilometers from Beijing. The heroine, Yuan'ni (Xu Fan, Feng's wife and muse of his early works), is happily married to truck driver Fang Daqiang. They have twins: daughter Deng and son Da.

Feng's treatment of the proverbial calm before a storm is nothing if not economical. Two short scenes define the Fangs' absolute bliss against compromised economic conditions of the period -- Yuan'ni huddles with her children to enjoy the luxury of their newly purchased electric fan; Yuan'ni and Daqiang, who have no room of their own, have a romp inside his truck. One scene suffices to reveal the family dynamic that leads up to the pivotal plot point: When the twins fight for a tomato, Yuan'ni gives it to Da. Tomatoes will play a role in the heart-tugging coda that occurs 32 years later.

Unlike "Haeunde," another Asian disaster megafilm, there is no wading through a string of subplots and a motley crew of characters -- a common excuse for star cameos -- for nearly an hour before getting to the disaster. In less than 20 minutes, the money shots come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.

For overseas viewers, the quality of CGI and special effects -- partly handled by a Korean team -- are secondary in novelty to seeing the toppling of vintage Stalinist-Chinese architecture rather than the skyscrapers and dams that make regular appearances in Hollywood disaster flicks. Nonetheless, one can sense Feng's eagerness to get the blockbuster elements out of the way so that he can get on with what he does best -- personal human drama.

Soon after Yuan'ni is saved from repercussions of an aftershock, she is plunged into a dilemma similar to that in "Sophie's Choice." The twins lives are endangered but only one can be saved by the rescue team. She chooses her son. Miraculously, Deng survives, but by then, Yuan'ni and Da already have been evacuated. The image of the puny, dust-covered girl rising Lazarus-like from a sea of corpses is a stark tableau of human resilience.

Feng's treatment of how Yuan'ni lives with her guilt and how Deng overcomes the lifelong trauma of hearing her mother choose her brother's life over hers is not too heavy-handed. At best, Yuan'ni's acts of remorse are made to look like amusing stubbornness, even providing comic relief. The measured buildup and restraint allows Feng to pull off several all-out tearjerking scenarios toward the end, when he dramatizes the mother-daughter reunion through the Sichuan Earthquake.

The parallel lives of Deng and Da, going through the same stages of teenage rebellion, career building and marriage without knowing of each others' existence, comprises the most overstretched section in the film. In contrast to the tempestuous first act, the experiences described are so typical of ordinary Chinese that it naturally leads to a dip in tension. However, the universal nature of the parent-child relationships, interspersed with historical events like Chairman Mao's death and social transformations like the flourishing of "Ge Ti Hu" (self-employed households) is what connects most deeply to his target mainland audience.

Entrusted with such a demanding role, Xu Fan sometimes tips over to exaggeration. Her demonstrative gestures and tendency of her voice to get squeaky at dramatically charged moments are dents to an otherwise powerhouse performance. Bringing composure and intelligence into the balance is Zhang Jingchu as the teenage and adult Deng. As Deng's adoptive father, veteran actor Chen Daoming gives a degree of credibility to an idealized character by projecting an earthy, slightly naive image.

The extravagant production design using period paraphernalia gathered from nationwide donations evokes rosy nostalgia for a period that was in reality far from cozy. Complemented by a muddy brown and ashen gray color texture in the 1976 section, cinematography by Lv Yue (DP of Feng's "Assembly" and John Woo's "Red Cliff") is solid, achieving an apocalyptic sense of doom in shots of the ruins and panoramic views of the city before and after the devastation. Visuals set during the '80s and on are less stylized.

Presented by Tang Shan Tele-broadcast Media Co. Ltd, China Film Group, Huayi Brothers Media Corp.; co-presented by Shanghai Film Group, Zhejiang Audio-visual Co. Ltd., Media Asia Film Co Ltd, Emperor Motion Pictures.
Production Company: Huayi Brothers Media Corp.
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Su Xiaorui
Based on the novel "Aftershock" by Zhang Li
Producer: Chen Kuofu
Executive producer: Wang Zhonglei
Cinematography: Lv Yue
Production designer: Huo Tingxiao
Editor: Xiao Yang
Music: Wang Liguang
No MPAA rating