Recreating Tangshan’s 1976 Earthquake

Recreating Tangshan’s 1976 Earthquake

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: December 27th 2010
Certificate (UK): 12A
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles

Director: Xiaogang Feng

Cast: Jingchu Zhang, Daoming Chen, Chen Jung Li, Yi Lu, Fan Xu, Jin Chen, Guoqiang Zhang, Li-li Liu, Ziwen Wang, Zi-feng Zhang, Tie-Dan, Mei Yong

Aftershock is Feng Xiaogang’s epic and moving adaptation of the novel “Tangshan dadizhen” (Great Tangshan Earthquake) by Zang Ling and it’s released on DVD this week in the UK. It’s a chance to see one of the most heartbreaking disaster movies ever made.

The film is dedicated to the 242,400 who lost their lives in the 1976 earthquake which levelled the city at the 3.42am on July 28th that year. It left 164,600 injured and 4,200 children orphaned, making it the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century.

In 2006, Feng first came across Zang’s novel and was moved and inspired by its heartfelt story. Two years later, after the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the city government of Tangshan approached Feng and asked him to make a movie about the earthquake that had destroyed their own city in 1976.

Feng says:

“I was really impressed and touched when the Bureau Chief of Tangshan’s municipal government called me and told me that they were determined to make a movie about the Tangshan earthquake to commemorate those lost in their city’s catastrophe, even though 32 years had passed.”

The director immediately began pre-production, deciding that the characters and story needed further development if he was going to bring the book to life. He chose to put greater emphasize on the strength of love between people, instead of simply telling a story about survival or telling of all the changes in society over three decades. The boundless nature of love is the central theme of the film, something that cannot be diluted by time or by distance.

In the movie we meet 7 year old twins Fang Deng (Zang Zifeng) and her brother Fang Da. Fang Deng looks out for her brother and stands up to his bullies and after getting a fan from the market they run home to plug it in and enjoy the cool breeze during the summer heat. Later that night as the children are asleep in their beds, their parents are about to enjoy a moment of passion outside in a parked truck when the quake hits. Lasting only 23 seconds but measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale and hitting at 11km directly beneath the sleeping city, mother and father attempt to race back to their apartment to rescue their children.


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The visual effects are on a scale that is impossible to describe. It’s impact is an emotional one and at such a level as the city collapses beneath the children, it leaves its own set of tremors in your heart.

After the first draft of the script was finished, Feng knew that the story had huge emotional power even if it was not a typical blockbuster movie.

Feng talks about how his friends reacted when he told them the story:

“During Chinese New Year, I told the story to several friends over dinner and they all burst into tears. I’ve since tried telling the same story about ten times to different groups of friends, and every time they have the same reaction.”

Executive producer Wang Zhonglei also talks about the emotional impact of Aftershock:

“I belong to the generation who witnessed the catastrophe in Tangshan. However, as the years passed, I realized we let go of something deep in our hearts and have gradually become less emotional and more hardened. Love should be universal, and it should always survive the erosion of time. We chose to make love the central theme of our film and to sincerely communicate it from our hearts.”

Stepping up to the challenge of recreating the devastating earthquake, the crew had to decide whether to build the set on a platform that could simulate the shaking ground of the earthquake or to attempt to recreate the earthquake with CGI.

Producer Chen Kuo-fu says:

“In the past, we only know to shake the camera while the actors move about, often noticeably out of synch with each other, and then we later tried to put these short clips together in the editing process so as stimulate the feeling of violent motion. But for a modern audience it doesn’t feel real at all. They just cannot feel that the whole world is trembling around them.”

The production design team decided to import professional platforms from South Korea and to build houses on top of them using light-weight materials. The shaking movement was achieved with electronically-controlled oil-pressure systems underneath the platforms. Meanwhile the actors were covered in bean powder to simulate layers of falling dust.

The platforms were made to look realistic by soiling them with puddles of dirty rainwater, pools of blood and layers of mud. It was highly effective under the artificial lights of the night time shoot, although by the next morning when the sunlight warmed up the set, the smell was horrific!

Aftershock - Preparing the set

The earthquake is just the beginning of the devastation that is about come; as the children lay trapped beneath the rubble and pinned against a slab of concrete, their distraught mother, Li Yuanna (Xu Fan), searches for them. The choice she is left to make will haunt her for the rest of her life and this is where the theme of boundless love comes in.

After taking over $100 million at the box office, Aftershock has proven it is a force to be reckoned with. An amazing story, stunning performances and incredible special effects easily makes this film one of our favourites this year. Although the DVD might not contain any special features, the film speaks for itself.

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