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#38: Aftershock - Review

Aftershock film poster Xiaogang Feng’s 2010 epic disaster film Aftershock is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. I sat down in the South Korean theater prepared for a gruesome reenactment of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in the Rolland Emmerich style, but was instead duped into a two-hour melodrama usually reserved for the Lifetime channel.

Aftershock opens with a swarm of dragonflies forcing their way through a portion of Tangshan, China. Desperately trying to escape the impending devastation, these insects are perhaps the only warning to the Tangshan community of the pressure slowly building beneath their feet. The film dismisses the swarm, but introduces Yuan Ni, a mother of twins Fang Deng and Fang Da, and her working class husband. After a few brief moments with the family, the fated earthquake hits with complete recklessness. The small town’s meager buildings begin to crumble, as if made of breadcrumbs. Hearing the terrified screams of their children, the parents make their way into the collapsing apartment building when a block of cement lands atop the father and instantly ends his life. Yuan Ni, without a second to consider her husband’s fate, presses on to find her children. She does find them, trapped precariously underneath what was once their ceiling. It is here Yuan Ni must make a choice between saving only one of her children, and with this choice the film actually starts proper.

The earthquake is over quickly, but takes many lives, and destroys countless more for generations to come. It is filmed with respect and does not selfishly sacrifice integrity for false heroics. I could only imagine what this sequence would turn into if helmed by a Hollywood director like Emmerich or Michael Bay. Unfortunately (and this may say more about me than about the film), once the earthquake lost its momentum, so to did this film lose my interest. There is a reason why the ship sinks at the end of Titanic.Aftershock film poster

Imagine if in Titanic (1997) the movie began with the doomed sinking of the ship. The first 20 minutes would be filled with spectacle and excitement, and then we come to find out the rest of the film is solely concerned with how the sinking affected those aboard. We would then be forced to watch characters we do not care about miserably meander throughout their existence, without having any emotional connection to them or the terrible event that devastated their lives. Aftershock, for me, unfortunately fell into this trap. After the excitement of the opening scene, I was waiting for the film to build up to a moment that matched its exhilaration, but all I was offered was scene after scene of women crying. I love a good cry in the theater, but I felt no emotional connection with Yuan Ni or her children throughout the picture. I was enthralled by their survival, but I was left wanting by the outcome of their lives. Why did Feng choose to follow this family’s struggle for his film? I am sure this movie could have kept my attention if one of the characters actually did something. Other than fight with one another and cry that is.

I know I am in the minority in regards to my feelings for Aftershock. I saw it with a packed house, including several other Chapman students and from what I could tell everyone loved it. They were sucked in by the horrible decision Yuan Ni had to make in the first act, and were captivated by the life Yuan and her children led after the quake. It reminds me of my experience with Sopyonje earlier this semester. I was physically uncomfortable by the gut-wrenching boredom I felt while watching the South Korean classic in class. I can appreciate the cultural relevancy of both films, but perhaps it is that culture that alienated me in each experience. Both films, Sopyonje and Aftershock, are concerned with the existence and the outcome of a brother and sister. Each set of siblings is forced into a lifestyle they are unfamiliar with, and in both films the children must overcome their respective hardships and attempt reunions in the final act. These films have many themes and plot points similar to each other, but they also have one other thing in common: I hated them!

I am sure there is some psychological reason I have shut myself off from enjoying films like Aftershock and Sopyonje. Perhaps it is because of my upbringing? Yeah! I remember my mom holding me too tight while she cried, forcing me to watch Terms of Endearment with her on Sunday mornings while she slowly stroked my hair. It has to be my mother’s fault that I am so emotionally closed off! Man, I feel a lot better now, thank you so much Xiaogang Feng! Not only have you introduced me to Asian blockbuster cinema has nothing to do with ancient China or Japan, but you also taught me something about myself. Great, now I am crying! 

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