Vancouver International Fim Festival Round Five: Chinese Blockbuster Weepiness

Aftershock.jpg  Aftershock. Directed by Xiaogang Feng.  

 Aftershock is a recent blockbuster that happens to be the highest grossing film in Chinese history. It’s like Titanic, if Kate Winslet had been a lot less naked, and a lot more Chinese. It’s directed by Xiagang Feng, who is essentially the Chinese Stephen Spielberg, but only if you’re thinking of E.T./Raiders/Schindler’s List  Spielberg, not if you’re thinking of Crystal Skull/Munich/Amistad Spielberg. I’m not sure who the Chinese equivalent of that Spielberg is.

 It’s the story of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, or more accurately it’s the story of how the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 affected one particular family. I’ll give you a hint: Not well.

 At it’s heart, this is a family drama, and while the scenes that depict the earthquake were incredible, and in fact were some of the best disaster special effects I’ve seen on film in recent years, the earthquake is just the mcguffin here. You could have taken that out and added a tsunami, or an alien invasion, or the family being forced to watch Jennifer Aniston movies, and you would have gotten the same result.

Although you’d think that watching this family get kicked in the emotional junk for two hours would be exhausting, it’s really what made this movie work for me.  I liked the characters, and so was happy to be patient while the movie led me by the nose through heartbreaking scene after heartbreaking scene. When the big emotional payoff came at the end of the film, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Except for me. Please don’t believe my wife if she tells you differently.  

Not to say that this is a perfect movie. The pro-Chinese military propaganda is overwhelming at times, and the film never misses an opportunity to remind us that earthquakes aren’t anyone’s fault and really the Chinese government did everything they could and so wouldn’t it be best if you just went back to work and stop asking so many questions? Please? Not only that, but a friend who I saw the film with pointed out how passive the characters  were, and how the message of the film seemed to be “Just sit there and shut up and eventually things will turn out alright.” Now, that happens to be the same friend who didn’t know who Mao Zedong was, so I would take that with a grain of salt.

Aftershock is a well told, big budget, family epic, and probably the best movie of it’s kind that I’ve seen this year. If you like accessible, entertaining dramas, give this one a shot.

Rating: B+

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the special effects again. In this modern age of CGI, the old school disaster effects were a breath of fresh air. This movie is worth watching just for that.

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