Cinematic Earthquakes: Thoughts on Aftershock and 1428

By Isabella Tianzi Cai and Kevin B. Lee

Aftershock (dir. Feng Xiaogang)

The 1976 Tangshan Earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in China’s history and believed to be the deadliest earthquake of the twentieth century. It had a magnitude of 7.8 and an estimated number of casualties between 212,419 to 719,000. Aftershock, director Feng Xiaogang’s dramatic feature about the Tangshan Earthquake, is set to be released July 22. Budgeted at 138 million RMB (over $20 million US), it is primed to be the film event of the summer for Chinese cinemas. To behold such a big-budget spectacular about a historical tragedy raises several questions about the film, chiefly: how it will recount the details of a historical tragedy while satisfying audiences as big-budget mass entertainment?

It is worth noting that the Censorship Board of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television of China gave Aftershock virtually no obstacle in production and distribution. Such lack of interference is very rare within the Chinese film industry. Many board members are said to have cried during the screening of the film, feeling deeply touched by the story. Clearly it is a state-approved account of history, every word, sentiment and action reviewed and approved. What bearing this has on the merits of the film remains to be seen upon its release. For now, we can contrast Feng Xiaogang’s production with another recent film about a similar historic tragedy in China.
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Du Haibin’s 1428 is a documentary about the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, which registered an 8.0 magnitude and killed nearly 70,000 people. Du arrived in Sichuan a few days after the earthquake, shooting without a permit. He wandered around towns with no greater purpose but to capture reality as it was unfolding in the wake of calamity. In many ways, his film functions as an alternative to the state-approved media coverage at the disaster, which focused almost exclusively on feats of heroic rescue, relief and survival. In contrast, Du’s film captures people in shell shock, not quite able to fully process their losses: homes, jobs, family. The film follows no apparent narrative thread, nor does it offer any clear conclusions. ??One film is a state-approved production presents the experience and meaning of cataclysm through a thoroughly vetted script and expensive special effects; another bears witness to the effects of disaster by capturing its unburnished details.

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

Both films serve a common purpose, to exhort people not to forget their country’s history and struggle through calamities. Perhaps what’s most interesting about both films is when the effects of disaster on human beings sparks behavior beyond the filmmaker’s expectation. The actors in Aftershock commented on how overwhelmed they became when they encountered the film’s extras, who were all real victims from the Tangshan Earthquake. They said that in one scene where the extras were burning incense and praying for their deceased relatives, when Feng Xiaogang shouted “Cut,” no one ceased their acts of mourning. They were so carried away by the re-enactment of their past trauma that they simply could not stop. In 1428, as Du Haibin walked around the disaster site with his video camera, people approached him and without any prompting began to vent about administrative abuses or other failures of the relief effort. Some of them regarded Du as a news reporter, thinking he might possess the power to publicize their problems in order to bring about justice.

Moments like these register as cinematic earthquakes in themselves, shaking the camera out of its mere service as a mere instrument for capturing images. And yet it is the presence of the camera that works like a conduit, a shaman, to unearth these raw feelings from underneath the official veneer of reality and history. These unscripted moments seem to speak more honestly and poignantly about the trauma suffered by those on screen, and the role of the cinema and media in capturing such traumas, than any pre-designed approach.
Note: This article references video interviews on Aftershock that can be found on Toudou (in Chinese) with director Feng Xiaogang and actor Zhang Guoqiang.

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