Monday, September 27, 2010

Review – Aftershock

September 28, 2010

Aftershock – China, 2010

Picture this. There has been a devastating earthquake. Buildings are crumbling everywhere, and on all sides, you can hear the screams and wails of people whose lives have been permanently shattered. Over two hundred thousand people – one of them, your spouse - are dead, and now you are being asked to decide the fate of one more. A steel bar is crushing both of your children. If the men frantically trying to save them lift one side, your son will be crushed; if they lift the other side, it is your daughter who will likely die. Make a choice. Which one should they try to save? As I said, it’s a decision no one should have to make.

If the choice sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it is reminiscent of one a character has to make in Alan Pakula’s 1982 film, Sophie’s Choice, starring Meryl Streep. That film tells the story of a mother who is forced to decide which of her two children is to be killed by the Nazis. In both films, the choice is the same – Save the son. In both films, the choice is made within earshot of the other child, and in both films, the person who made the choice must eventually come to terms with having made it. However, there’s one critical difference. As painful as the decision is in Aftershock, it lacks the power it should have. This is because after the grieving mother (Fan Xu) picks up her wounded son and runs to get him the medical help he desperately needs, her daughter, Fang Deng, wakes up and walks off in a daze, completely unhurt.

So what is the consequence of the mother’s choice then? It’s separation, not complete loss, and while she doesn’t know this, the audience does. Should we then see tragedy in what happens to the daughter? She gets adopted by a nice couple, gets an education in medicine, and has a baby out of wedlock - certainly not the best thing that could happen to her, but certainly not the worst either. Should we feel anger at the son’s rather callous disregard for his mother in the years that follow? Sure, he ignores his mother’s advice, refuses to go to school, and is generally insensitive to his mother’s situation. However, he also becomes a successful businessman. Where’s the tragedy in that? And just how are we meant to view the woman who made the decision? Rather sympathetically, in fact, for director Xiaogang Feng makes sure that the audience knows how vehemently she fought for rescuers to save both of her children and then how hard she works to provide for and ensure a good future for her son. Oddly enough, the character the film seems to want viewers to see as having made a mistake is Fang Deng, a young girl who is so traumatized by hearing her mother “choose” to save her brother instead of her that she can’t bring herself to tell her mother that she is still alive. Watch the end of the film. I’m not sure it can be interpreted any other way.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a film borrowing a theme or two from another film. It’s done all the time. In fact, half of James Cameron’s Titanic was lifted from A Night to Remember, and the former still won Best Picture of the Year. In addition, there’s nothing particularly wrong with an audience knowing more than some of the central characters in a film do. Done well, the technique can add suspense to a film. In Aftershock, however, the technique somehow works against the film. I never felt angry at the son or truly sad for the mother. Moreover, I felt great sympathy for the daughter and hoped she would be ready one day to reveal the truth.

In addition, the film’s frequent leaps in time disrupt what should be a continuous story and often what viewers are suddenly presented with is completely different from what they just saw a moment earlier. For example, one moment the son is a poor tuk-tuk driver without much of an education; the next, he is a successful businessman. We never learn how he made the transition. In another odd use of time, the girl goes from discovering she’s pregnant and seemingly disappearing to suddenly visiting her foster father for the first time in years. Where has she been? How has she survived? The film doesn’t tell us. Other scenes introduce potential conflicts that are then completely dropped or never resolved.

Nor for that matter does the film provide the expected - and perhaps needed - emotional finale. One would expect a rather powerful scene when these characters are reunited. However, most of the revelations occur off camera, and instead of seeing characters that should be extremely emotional – if not sobbing uncontrollably – we get scenes in which two characters are suddenly calmly referring to each other as “brother” and “sister.”

This is not to say that there aren’t truly powerful moments in Aftershock, for there are. Unfortunately, there are too few of them, and most of them come near the beginning of the film and towards the end of the film. There are some interesting moments involving the mother and her in-laws, moments that are both tragic and a bit emotionally cruel. I also liked the parts of the story that had to do with Fang Deng’s foster parents. These scenes have a lot to tell viewers about the joys and challenges of being a foster parent. There’s also a nice moment during which Fang Deng finally tells her foster father what happened to her when she was a child. The scene would have been more powerful had the audience not already known it or if what she reveals were not obvious by that point in the film. I’m not saying that Aftershock is a terrible film, only that it should have been much better. A film about an event as terrible as the Tangshan Earthquake should pack a punch. However, Aftershock feels more like a very light glancing shot, rather than the knockout blow it should have been. (in theatres in Asia; on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Aftershock is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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