Tangshan Dadizhen (2010) (Aftershock)
There’s a problem with state-sponsored filmmaking: No matter how brilliant an artist you are, your works will eventually be evaluated based on your government’s activities – past, present and future. Xiaogang Feng’s Aftershock (2010), the Chinese entry for the Oscars, is a fine melodrama, with lots of empathy for its characters, but, despite its ambitions, it can’t help but spell the state agenda. It is rather interesting that the focal point the film – a work that so doggedly deals with family drama – is the death of Mao Zedong. In the film’s triggering event, the massive Tangshan earthquake of 1976 (an awfully done segment that tries in vain, like Lu’s work last year, to match Hollywood), a woman (Fan Xu) is given the choice of having either her daughter or her son rescued. The choice, actually, is of sacrificing either one. Devastated, she chooses her son, and doesn’t get to know that her daughter is, in fact, alive. Mao passed away months after the quake. Feng establishes a parallel between the two mishaps and treats them as kindred events that shape the microcosm and macrocosm of the story. The quake splits the twins into son and daughter of two different families. Mao’s death bifurcates Chinese history and ideology into one that is stuck with the nation’s past and one which thrusts forward, trying to catch up with the rest of the world. (That the two earthquakes which bracket Aftershock‘s proceedings occur on either side of the Soviet dissolution is significant). Feng sketches the son’s family as being problematically patriarchal and the other family as somewhat liberal and progressive. Through the familial trajectory (the daughter marries a Canadian and returns home just after the 2008 Sichuan quake), the film seems to appeal for reconciliation between the two histories and to point out that that they were, after all, children of the same parents. I’m not sure if this nationalist sensibility is really that reproachable, but Feng portrayal of the Chinese army as all do-gooders and the current government as highly people-friendly distracts us from the finer aspects of this work.