Three families from the decimated Chinese city of Beichuan who lost loved ones in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struggle to cope with more than just the emotional aftermath in Zhao Qi’s absorbing docu “Fallen City.” Strictly as a depiction of ordinary people working through grief after horrific loss, the pic is expectedly moving, if nothing radically new, but it gets much more interesting when its focus expands to encompass broader issues about the protagonists’ lives. Selected to compete at Sundance after its IDFA premiere, Zhao’s debut could build limited theatrical prospects, but will be most at home on upscale TV.
The magnitude 8.0 quake killed nearly 70,000 people in Sichuan province, and reduced the city of Beichuan to splinters in a matter of minutes. Quickly spliced-in news footage, shot immediately after the quake, captures wailing survivors digging bodies out of the rubble, and underscores the scale of the disaster. Quieter and more effective, however, is the elegiac original material showing what’s left of the town now, where shattered buildings are ornamented by flowers and makeshift shrines, still-standing walls bear traces of lives erased, and abandoned cats and dogs roam free, indifferent to the loss of human life.
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After a montage of static cinematic “portraits” of survivors holding pictures of the dead, the narrative zeroes in on three main families: Peng Xiaoguan and his wife, Li Xiaorong, who lost their only child, an 11-year-old girl; 14-year-old Hong Shihao, who lost his father; and middle-aged community leader Li Guihua, who lost three sisters, a daughter and a granddaughter, leaving her alone to look after her dementia-afflicted mother.
What makes “Fallen City” more compelling than most documentaries of its kind is its emphasis on how its subjects grapple with the challenges of life still to be lived. Peng and Li face hard choices about their future, such as whether they want to have another child, and if Li should take a lucrative job offer in Shanghai. Hong would much rather drown out his sorrows by playing online games, but his ferocious tiger mother, who’s already remarried and is reconciled to the loss of her first husband, hectors him constantly about his poor grades. Li Guihua throws herself into her work,and caring for her own mother, but a shocking reveal late in the game will force auds to rethink their position on this seemingly noble, Mother Courage-like figure.
All the while, Zhao, who produced the fine and thematically similar docu “Last Train Home,” is careful not to directly criticize the Chinese government for how the tragedy was handled or, perish the thought, lay any of the blame on possibly substandard housing. Nevertheless, there’s a faint but unmistakable note of irony in the occasional cutaways to news reports touting the swift rebuilding of a new Beichuan city, emphasizing in classic Socialist style the physical scale of the project, the number of residential units created and the supposed advantages of the new location.
Tech contributions are highly polished, especially the HD lensing by Sun Shaoguang. The soundtrack, featuring tunes by composer Arvo Part, including the overused “Spiegel im Spiegel,” is at least sparsely deployed.