For all of its boasts of extraordinary special effects and a dramatic arc that encompasses several decades, there is in fact little to distinguish Aftershock from the average Hollywood disaster epic. Ultimately, its indulgent two-hour plus running time and a penchant for devastation porn, predictably garnished with melodrama of the most heightened order, conspire to render Aftershock a rather tedious trudge.
However, despite Aftershock’s surface conventionality, it manages to differentiate itself from the likes of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 by exploring the narrative possibilities beyond the ‘event’ itself, broadening the horizons of a well-mined genre with a plot steeped in China’s socio-historical development and a passing interest in the country’s problematic gender politics which are still perceived in the modern age to favour the male heir.
Effectively a film of three acts, Aftershock opens with a brief sanguine introduction to seven year old twins Da and Deng (the son and daughter of an industrial working class family), though their happy childhood is soon dashed by the sudden arrival of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions, the collapsing buildings consigning hundreds of thousands of people to an early grave. Having remarkably survived herself, the children’s mother discovers Da and Deng crushed underneath a concrete slab, the removal of which will save one but kill the other. With time running out, and within earshot of her daughter, she chooses to free her son who is rescued safely from the wreckage albeit missing an arm.
Deng, presumed and left for dead, wakes up miraculously some hours later amidst the chaos and rotting bodies. Whilst living under the provisional care of a temporary army camp, Deng is adopted by two military personnel who, under the assumption their new daughter is an orphan, proceed to raise her with devotion and care. As the decades advance and the twins continue to go their separate ways, the chance of a reunion unconvincingly fades until, in 2008, a dreadful earthquake levels Sichuan, compelling both brother and sister to return to aid the rescue effort.
If it weren’t for the constant attempts to reduce the audience to an emotionally crippled wreck at every given opportunity, a technique partly evident in the weepy violins which are synchronised to burst into life at the first sight of a tear or a quivering lip,Aftershock might not have been such a crushing bore. It is arguable and worth considering that the film’s ferocious sentimentality was intended to act as a cathartic release for a Chinese audience who may share a collective grief regarding the real-life earthquakes of both Sichuan and Tangshan. However, coupled with mediocre dialogue, a torturously obvious plot in which events are foreshadowed long before they arrive, and a rather unimaginative tying up of loose ends, any poignancy, cultural insight or dramatic potential is lost beneath the myriad of cinematic clichés the film insists on clinging on to.