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Shelly on Film: Tremors and Traumas: Notes on Three Chinese Earthquake Movies

By Shelly Kraicer

Buried (dir. Wang Libo)

It’s been earthquake movie season in China ever since the terrible Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12th 2008. I’ve seen fourteen of these films since then — documentaries, features, and shorts, including titles like May Day, Don’t Cry Mom, Who Killed Our Children, and Quake de Love — and I’ve by no means done a systematic search. This doesn’t include the films that mention the earthquake in passing: the number would then increase three- or four-fold.

What makes this subject so essential for Chinese filmmakers to grapple with? The Sichuan earthquake is a disaster seared into the consciousness of most people living in China, where national mass media gave saturation coverage to the earthquake and its aftermath. The subject naturally lends itself both to propaganda-style tales of heroic rescure and moral uplift, and equally to outsider critiques of government policies that made the destruction worse. It seems that there is an earthquake for every political colouring, and every possible calibration of mass media coverage (and exploitation).

I’d like to look a bit more closely at a couple of films from what we might call opposite ends of the spectrum, and one right in the middle. On one end is Wang Libo’s Buried (Yanmai), an independent documentary from 2009. Situated at the other end of is Feng Xiaogang’s massive blockbuster Aftershock (Tangshan da dizhen, 2010), the most popular Chinese film in history, measured by the box office. And right in the middle is 1428, Du Haibin’s documentary from 2009.

One would expect the most “independent” film in spirit to be Buried, a very tizhiwai documentary (i.e. outside of the system), which premiered in competition in the Chinese Documentary Film Festival in Songzhuang (I was one of the members of the jury that gave the film the festival’s Third Prize). Buried is an angry, committed, and forceful polemic that compares the great Tangshan earthquake of 1976 (in which at least 200,000 people lost their lives) and Wenchuan from 2008. Wang’s thesis is that the Tangshan earthquake was entirely and precisely predictable, that it was in fact predicted by the State Seismological Bureau, the official scientific body in China charged with seismological research, that the predictions were deliberately discounted and ignored at higher, government levels, and that this resulted in the unnecessary loss of enormous numbers of people. The film is very polished, and tightly constructed: it relentlessly builds its case. Wang interviews workers from the seismological institute, tracing the process of earthquake prediction and notification through the bureaucracy. He identifies systematic failures to respond to, and attempts to bury the alarming predictions and points his finger at the subsequent cover it up. He also interviews witnesses and dissident experts who had attempted to publicize what they saw as the Chinese government’s failure to mobilize and evacuate Tangshan.

It’s all pretty damning. Or at least it looks that way, until one starts to ask questions that the documentary doesn’t ask. As polemic, Buried relentlessly advances one point of view, mustering evidence in favour of its thesis and systematically excluding anything that might undermine its conclusions. And the situation is in fact much more complicated than Buried lets on. Earthquake prediction is a science over long time frames but at a more precise, granular, “this day” or “this week” level of prognostication, it is highly controversial. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for the successful precise predictions, but it remains precisely that, anecdotal (or worse, “bollocks and pseudoscience” according to James Palmer, a historian now writing a book on the Tangshan Earthquake). There are also complex political issues that play out in disputes between the State Seismological Bureau and independent Chinese earthquake forecasters, which Buried would have done well to elucidate. The trained scientists formerly working for the SSB were replaced during the Cultural Revolution by scientists who believed in the accuracy of precise earthquake prediction. Now it’s the scientific faction who are back at the SSB, and the predictive theorists who oppose them from the outside, and it’s from this latter group that the documentary draws its most eloquent interviewees. Interestingly complicated. But one won’t get a sense of the real subtleties of the situation from the film, which simplifies and streamlines in order to hammer home its thesis that the Chinese government knew all and was responsible for doing nothing.

In general, as a matter of principle, it’s easy to sympathize with, and indeed support, this kind of muckraking journalism: its healthy skepticism of Chinese government actions, its willingness to bravely expose non-mainstream thinking, and its dedication to calling the Chinese government to account for its failings. This is the basic motivation for much independent political documentary filmmaking in China. It produces a lot of good work, work that I enjoy supporting in my writing and curating. But it is reasonable to expect, I think, that the means a documentary employs must be consonant with its ends. Opposing simplistic ideology with complex, nuanced reality; speaking (the whole) truth to attack falsehoods. The tools a documentarian uses in the pursuit of the truth need to be sharp, transparent, comprehensive, and unassailable. There’s not much freedom granted to the viewer by this independent film.


Aftershock (dir. Feng Xiaogang)

Take, on the other hand, Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock. As I’ve written elsewhere, a film can’t be this overwhelmingly successful in contemporary China without simultaneously working as irresistible commercial cinema, crafty propaganda, subtle national-historical mythmaking, cathartic weepie, and subtly incisive social critique. Feng’s brilliance is to make it all happen together, inside one movie. Of course, a film of this scale in China today, with the Tangshan city government as one of its official producers, can’t avoid speaking the language of power. And it certainly does that, more subtly in the Tangshan earthquake section of the film, and more egregiously in the Wenchuan episode. The film’s giant opening set piece, the destruction of Tangshan during the earthquake, is, I would argue, less massaged to fit Party propaganda models than one might have expected. Note the complete absence of scenes in which leaders stand stiffly above the scene, issuing directives (a staple of many of the films I’ve mentioned above). In fact, the Chinese government in 1976 was in the last stages of the Cultural Revolution, before Chairman Mao’s death, and is widely criticized for its insufficient mobilization immediately following the earthquake. Aftershock does show (probably counter to the actual historical record) heroic Red Army troupes massing like clockwork pageantry outside of Tangshan and coming to the rescue. On the other hand, the detailed action shows citizens rescuing citizens, not hero-soldiers doing the job. They come in later. Feng has it both ways: if you are looking with official eyes for acceptable images reinforcing the official (false) history, they are there. If you are looking for details that fit with real, remembered events, they are there too.

As I said, Wenchuan gets a far more standardized treatment in Aftershock, with government forces, now abetted by generous rescue-capitalists (in a nice 21st century ideological twist) streaming into Wenchuan and rescuing survivors. The language is much more turgid, the images much more conventionalized (based, as they are, on CCTV propaganda scenes that played over and over on Chinese television during the aftermath).

A more detailed critique of the film could offer many other examples of Feng’s canny, complex balancing act, where elements of truthful detail coexist with overarching images and themes that satisfy enforcers of Chinese political orthodoxy.

It’s in the implied connections between things that the film’s real fascination lies. US-based scholar Rujie Wang has done a better job than I have, in a couple of notes published on the MCLC list and on the Chinese Cinema Digest, of digging into the more provocative implications and meanings that underlie Aftershock. I can briefly summarize, and add some of my own impressions. At its heart, the film is an extended and enormously moving family drama in classical Chinese wenyipian or melodrama mode. It tells how three surviving members of a family, mother, daughter, and son — broken by the earthquake physically and emotionally — eventually find ways to overcome their grief and pain and come together in some semblance of a damaged but re-integrated family at home. “Disaster, victimization, recovery, survival” is the underlying thematic structure of the film. The subtly evoked subplot of sexual abuse within the family (evident to Chinese audiences who’ve read the novel the film is based on, but which many western viewers may miss, since Feng just sketches in the space around it without underlining what’s implied) iterates, in microcosm, the harm abusive patriarchal authority can inflict, and the long term suffering that its victims have to live with.

Abstracted from the actual narrative of the Tangshan and Wenchuan earthquakes, these patterns resonate deeply in the larger context of Chinese post-1949 history, that series of non-natural, historical/political disasters (the Great Leap Forward and its ensuing great famine, the Cultural Revolution) that the Chinese nation has been made to suffer. Feng’s film provides a model of emotional catharsis for a population that has undergone this repeated experience of disaster and recovery. The tears being famously, copiously shed in Chinese theatres during the screening of the film are certainly for the weepy melodrama on the screen. But could they not also be an emotional release, distanced at one remove, for a country that recognizes the emotional patterns of its own experiences in the film?


1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

Poised somewhere these two films’ modes of address is Du Haibin’s 1428. Criticized by some in the independent film community for being not quite”independent” enough, it was produced by CNEX, a Beijing-based, Taiwanese-owned company that has amassed a considerable catalogue of thoughtful documentaries about China that are institutionally non-confrontational enough to conceivably be shown in more mainstream venues in China. On the other hand, Du’s film is too pointed, its point of view too independently critical, its rhetoric too much outside of official mainstream discourse, to be able to pass censorship in China. As I wrote elsewhere, Du’s two visits to the devastated town of Beichuan, one 10 days after the quake, the other 200 days later were provoked, initially, by a compulsion to volunteer in the rescue. But, after witnessing the false official Chinese TV version of the recovery, Du was compelled to film what he saw, to try to construct a truthful version of the survivors’ indomitable commitment to go on living. Subtle, scrupulously non-dogmatic, compassionate, and critical, Du’s film is a rich, open text: it grants the audience full autonomy to judge what they see for themselves.

“Independent” film has to mean much more than the conditions under which the film is made, or the political stance the film overtly articulates. Independence from truth-constricting ideologies is obviously one essential component of the term. But another meaning, equally important, has much more to do with the kind of audience the film assumes, or, better yet, the kind of viewer the film works to construct. An open text grants viewers a significant degree of autonomy, presents them with a work of art containing the materials that, in collaboration with each viewer, will generate a set of meanings. This is the moral contract that an independent film establishes with its possible viewers, it undertakes to offer them the same possibility of freedom that the film insists on advocating for in the world it captures.


1428 will be screening in October at select US engagements.


Further links on the earthquake prediction debate links:

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