In 1976, a major earthquake devastated the Tangshan district in China, killing thousands, including the husband of Li Yuan (Xu Fan) after protecting her from danger. The film revolves around Li Yuan’s heartbreaking decision to save one of her twins Fang Da (Li Chen) and Fang Deng (Zhang Jingchu) and how her decision dictated their lives for the next 32 years.
Dealing with a disaster movie is pretty tall order, so much so when the disaster in question actually took place in real life. There are a lot of emotions involved for a nation that has suffered great loss. This must be the feeling of the Chinese when watching the film, reliving that fateful day in 1976, cringing at the devastation, yet at the same time, inspired by the unity of its people in the wake of disaster.
When this film was shown at the opening of the Chinese Film Festival in Manila, I felt that it was the right movie to kickstart the festival because Filipinos too, recently suffered a great loss from supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) which struck the Visayas area and leveled major cities in the region. As viewers witnessed the breakdown of the buildings and the screams of terror, audiences can’t help but be pulled into the scene, recalling what it was like to see the news of their own people suffering in the wake of the calamity, and the feeling of pulling together as a nation to respond to the need of those who were affected by the disaster. Even people who have not been touched by loss would surely relate to the raw emotions being conveyed by a mother on the verge of losing her family, the neighbors pitching in to save whom they could, the recovery of the bodies and lining them up en masse on the streets. It was one of the many dramatic moments of the film, the first of many.
Technically, the effects were not as flawless as they should be. The CGI did not seem very realistic in some parts, but then again, it was not really the selling point of the movie. In terms of storytelling, I felt at times, that the movie was too detailed in some parts, but too vague with the others, so the wait for the final resolution to the story was kind of a long journey.
The best part of the movie was the story and the acting. I especially loved Xu Fan who played the lead role of Li Yuan, the mother. The way she was punishing herself for the 32 years for her choice was heartbreaking and would thaw even the stoniest of hearts. On the other hand, I understood what it was like for Fang Deng, the daughter who felt rejected and left for dead, suffering an emotional trauma on top of the psychological trauma from the earthquake. But my favorite character was really Wang Dequing (Chen Daoming) who played Fang Deng’s adoptive father. He was not selfish and it was clear that her love for his adopted daughter was unconditional. He won Best Performance by an actor in the Asia Pacific Screen Awards for his portrayal. With such great characters, one could not help but be involved with the movie.
As could be expected, there were a lot of crying (because, it was, after all, a drama) but other than that, there were a lot of other dimensions to the movie as well. There was the matter of dealing with the aftershock of the disaster — guilt, love, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness and the characters’ evolution with their emotions. I for one, thought that the approach was very Asian and depicts the Asian culture very well — unity in the face of adversity, a love for family, and a generosity of spirit that allows for understanding in the worst transgressions (sometimes, this is not a very good trait, but for the movie, it is). Surely, an appropriate film to be shown in a festival that showcases a common culture among different people, it is a film that calls for reflection about one’s own humanity and imperfections and understanding the possibility that everything can be lost in one fell swoop.