Feng revisits deadly 1976 quake in 'Aftershock'

Comedy director turns to drama for disaster film

HONG KONG -- Tangshan, 1976. With China closed to the world, the northeastern city was impoverished, a crude electric fan considered a luxury. Residents were witnessing the final days of the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year ultra-leftist campaign in which millions were persecuted.

What little material comfort and political stability the residents of Tangshan enjoyed came toppling down when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck on July 28. At least 240,000 people perished as the city's industrial landscape was reduced to rubble.

Thirty-four years later, director Feng Xiaogang is revisiting modern China's deadliest natural catastrophe in a 135 million Chinese yuan ($20 million), 135-minute epic due out July 22. In addition to recreating the sheer physical destruction, Feng uses "Aftershock" to examine its aftermath through the story of a present-day mother's three-decade journey to an emotional reunion with the daughter she thought she had lost to the disaster.

"You can call it a disaster movie, but the real disaster is the havoc it wreaks on the human heart after the earthquake," the 52-year-old director said Saturday.

It's not your typical summer blockbuster fare, especially for a successful commercial filmmaker well known for his comedies. The timing of the release is also sensitive, coming just two years after another deadly earthquake in the southwestern Sichuan province left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. In April, another earthquake in Qinghai province killed nearly 2,700 people.

China is still wary of questions about the 2008 Sichuan quake, sentencing an activist who investigated the deaths of schoolchildren to five years in prison in February on charges of inciting subversion of state power.

But Beijing feels that enough time has past for filmmakers to examine the Tangshan disaster in a heart-wrenching drama that Feng says left no dry eye among the Chinese censors who cleared the movie. Chinese film officials also didn't object to Feng's depiction of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in the later stages of his movie -- although the director avoids sensitive issues like the possibility of shoddy school construction.

The Tangshan city government funded half of Feng's budget. The director recruited actual survivors as extras, including them in an aerial shot showing the city dotted with small fires -- survivors burning paper offerings for their loved ones.

"They were really crying. They were burning paper as they were expressing their love for their relatives," Feng said.

"It seems that everyone feels that China needs a movie like this that showcases the Chinese people's love of family and their character," he said.

"'Aftershock' is like a psychiatrist. People need to pour their hearts out and vent," said Feng's wife, actress Xu Fan, who delivered a haunting performance as the mother scarred for life by the sacrifice of her husband -- and the apparent death of her daughter.

Feng said the production was a technical breakthrough for the Chinese film industry. He drew help from visual effects experts from South Korea and the post-production division of French media company Technicolor. New Zealand's Weta Workshop _ the Oscar-winning design company behind the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy _ gave advice on miniature models that doubled for 1976 Tangshan.

"This was a very valuable experience for us," he said.