In some ways, Aftershocks as a big budgeted epic sort of plays out like Feng Xiaogang's Assembly, with the money shots concentrated in the first few minutes, followed by a masterful treatment of human drama against an historical backdrop of events in China. As a fan of Feng's films thus far, he continues to show that he's equally adept in handling commercial, studio tentpole films like this one, and smaller, more intimate films like If You Are The One, dealing with equal ability a cast of plenty, or just a handful.
Aftershocks cuts to the chase and puts the audience smack into 1976 Tangshan, China, just about when the big quake struck. We're introduced to a family of four, where soon enough Mother Nature's unforeseen wrath swallows up the entire city, and shattering countless of lives and families in the process. What follows will set the stage for the entire two more hours to come, where Yuan Ni (Xu Fan) has to make that Sophie's Choice of which twin for the rescuers to save - son Da Feng, or daughter Fang Deng - since a beam separates the two. Tradition, culture and custom will unfortunately make this a no-brainer when push comes to shove, coupled with the fact that the death of her husband in rescuing her, and her role as the dutiful wife to ensure the preservation of the family line, but worst, this decision is made within earshot of Fang Deng who's fighting for her life in the rubble.
Heaven's compassion means Fang Deng survives the ordeal nonetheless, but gets picked up by a PLA soldier and sent to a survivor's camp, where she gets adopted into a foster family (Chen Jin and Chen Daoming in excellent form here as foster mom and dad respectively). The narrative then tangents into two halves, one following the grown up Da Feng (Li Chen), and the other Fang Deng (Zhang Jingchu), in their trials and tribulations of growing up in China in the last 30 years, interspersed with shots of a growingly vibrant Tangshan (and other cities of China) where we see the economic development of the country. However, Nature still is that unfortunate leveller, and for all the technological advancement, human emotions and a mother's love still continue to form the basis of a heartwrench when dealt with an unfair card in life.
Based upon a novel, What works here are the many small subplots that get introduced, such as teenage romance, filial piety, and essentially the all important theme of family, that merges well with the inclusion of landmark events such as Chairman Mao's death, and another more recent quake that brings characters together. What more, all the cast members gave stellar performances (Save for the token Caucasian) that will tug at your heartstrings, and enable the melodramatic, emotional finale to be all the more powerful as we come to learn how bitterness and hatred accumulated over the years, can dissipate with the passage of time, and the opportunity presented to seek forgiveness.
Which somehow the editing seemed to give way under the weight of emotions, and introduced some abrupt cuts away from scenes you'd think will linger for a more emotional closure. However, art direction from costuming to sets here are superb in capturing the look and feel depicting the different eras from the 70s to the 90s, and brought to mind other similarly crafted dramas like Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting and Electric Shadows, both films that you should give a watch as well should you dig powerful dramas like Aftershocks.
I can't attest to how great this film would have been on a larger than life IMAX screen simply because Singapore, for all our record movie attendance, we still find it not viable to have one (we had one before), but one thing's for sure, the special effects employed here is on par with what Hollywood can dish out. While Hollywood can serve exaggeration for that wow factor (think 2012 where everything falls apart), Feng employs digital effects prudently to ensure that the emotional aspect doesn't get neglected. For all the individuals affected by the Big Quake, one will actually feel for them when they get pulverized, and it's hard not to be saddened when you realize it's actually all very futile when the ground beneath you starts swallowing everything. As one character said in the film, there's no worry if it's a small quake, and if it's a big one there'll be no escape anyway. It's this exasperation and resignation from a survivor that succinctly explains not only the physical scars, but the emotional ones as well that lingers far longer with the survivors, coming close to becoming pangs of guilt.
So don't go in expecting a special effects extravaganza like what Hollywood will do. An earthquake doesn't last for that long, but the emotional journey of family members set apart by a catastrophic event goes on for much longer. Aftershocks is that film set on the right path in choosing to focus on this aspect, and delivered a film rich in the human emotions of pain, distress and suffering. Highly recommended, and a natural inclusion to the shortlist of this year's best.