Stunning special effects are wedded to potent family drama in “After Shock,” Feng Xiaogang’s heartrending depiction of the impact of the massive 1976 earthquake that killed more than 240,000 in Tangshan, China. Fulfilling Sam Goldwyn’s dream of beginning with a quake and working up to a powerful climax, this well-paced film, blessed with topnotch perfs, satisfies on every level. Since opening July 22, “Shock” has rocked the Chinese B.O. with a socko RMB 160 million ($23.5 million), not including Imax figures; pic merits wider exhibition than the Asian circuit and would make a classy addition to a savvy arthouse distrib’s slate.
Yarn begins in 1976’s idyllic Tangshan in northeast China. Da Qing (Zhang Guoqiang) has just bought an electric fan, a rare home comfort at the time, in which his devoted wife, Yuan Ni (Xu Fan), luxuriates. Their 7-year-old twins — son Da Feng (Zhang Jiajun) and daughter Fang Deng (Zhang Zifeng) — are happy to fight over school bags bearing images of Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall.
When the earthquake hits, Da Qing is crushed while trying to prevent his wife from running to their children’s rescue. Later, a still-hysterical Yuan Ni learns that both her children have been pinned under a concrete slab; when emergency workers can only save one child, she’s left with a “Sophie’s Choice”-style decision and picks her son to appease the frustrated rescuers.
Under the rubble, Fang Deng is shocked to hear her mother’s decision. The girl is left for dead but survives; she’s eventually removed from the debris, taken to a refugee camp and soon adopted by a childless couple (Chen Daoming and Chen Jin) who raise her as their own.
The narrative jumps ahead 10 years to 1986, when both children are about to sit their college exams. Yuan Ni nags teenage Da Feng (now played by Li Chen) to succeed academically because his prosthetic hand makes him unfit for manual labor. Fang Deng (rechristened Ya Ya by her adoptive parents and played by thesp Zhang Jingchu) is keen to study medicine in Hangzhou.
The leap forward in time allows Feng to engage with his wider, more ambitious theme of China’s transformation over the past 40 years. Political changes are duly observed, but so are technical advances, including the ubiquitous presence of television. A nod to economic modification comes when stoic Yuan Ni leaves her job in a milling factory to become a seamstress in a corner store. Meller strands also keep eloquent pace with Chinese society’s economic advances.
In due course, the narrative jumps ahead another decade, as both Da Feng and Fang Deng/Ya Ya achieve levels of prosperity unthinkable in their Tangshan childhood. By the pic’s final installment in 2008, China’s economic miracle is in full swing, but the yarn makes clear that time and community heal wounds better than gadgets and wealth ever can. Final 40 minutes neatly draw together narrative strands with a poignant sadness that is intoxicating.
From main players to kiddie thesps, the performances are flawless, with all the actors giving vibrant life to their well-written roles.
Having demonstrated skill with both large-scale action (“Assembly”) and intimate drama (“If You Are the One”), Feng blends the two registers with masterful ease here. Aided by vet lenser Lu Yue, the helmer deploys different shooting styles to reflect the changing times. Early Tangshan scenes are classically composed, while the more contempo sequences utilize modern storytelling techniques with, for instance, a restrained dash of wobblecam.Huo Tingxiao’s art direction gets the fine details just right, from the look of the communist propaganda of the period to once-favored brands of rice wine.
Special effects employed for earthquake scenes are world-class; Feng ensures auds feel the horror and share the characters’ ongoing sense of trauma, but doesn’t indulge in the ghoulishness typical of many disaster movies. Mostly somber score by Wang Liguang avoids bombast, allowing the drama to breathe naturally.