Nothing drives home the pain of a multitude better than a personal account, and Chinese director Feng Xiaogang leverages on this to great effect in his film Aftershock, made to commemorate the victims of the Tangshan earthquake in north China’s Hebei Province in 1976.
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The story opens in 1976 Tangshan, China. A deadly earthquake has just struck the city, and a pair of 7-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, are trapped under the rubble. As their mother pleads with the rescue team to save her children, they explain that saving one child will almost certainly result in the death of the other. Forced to make the most gut-wrenching decision of her life, she chose to save her son, Fang Da. Unbeknownst to her, her daughter Fang Deng overhears the decision her mother makes. Against all odds, she survives the trauma, and is eventually adopted by a Chinese couple.
Growing up, Fang Deng never forgets the hurt inflicted by her mother’s choice, and harbors emotional baggage that dictates most of her life choices. As the plot unfolds, the audience sees how the aftershocks of the earthquake ripple silently through the lives of each family member. Chinese actress Xu Fan, playing the mother who lives in the past, never quite getting over the choices that she made, grounds the film with a raw performance. A rich, well-developed script gives equal gravity to the other characters, depicting the painful yet ever-hopeful journey of parenthood as well as the sometime-peculiar intergenerational ties that bind one family to the next.
Thirty-two years later, when the Sichuan earthquake strikes, Fang Deng returns to China as a voluntary rescue team member, which sets her on the path of reuniting with her family. The events that happen thereafter lay bare the themes of loss and regret, forgiveness and closure in a highly affecting manner, showcasing the human spirit at its lowest and highest. Ultimately this is a film about love and family, well deserving of a spot among the biggest surprise hits of the movie season.