tangshan earthquake 1976
I think I have just seen a mainland Chinese disaster movie, the kind that Hollywood makes unreal unto fairytale with cars and buses exploding and tumbling through the air on fire. This disaster movie, made 2 years ago, is astonishing in that it looks so real you can just about feel queasy from seeing what you're seeing. The story started looking at a family, a boy and girl, twins, husband and wife, big city, Tangshan, a hundred or so miles east of Beijing, not far from the coast of a huge bay, Bo Hai, north of the Yellow Sea that's between China and the Korean peninsula. I like to watch especially Chinese and Scandinavian films with my Oxford Atlas of the World at hand. It's almost up to date and loaded with images of continents and islands without political lines, also with them. It has all the -Stans since the passing of the Soviet Union. I like the topographical maps that show Norway is all mountains and Denmark nearly a flat plane. I see landscape in the film and look it up to see where it is. I like the satellite images of cities, to see how they're arranged by street patterns, rivers and bays. I've found a faint familiarity with Copenhagen in film. Not like being on the ground there, but a visual familiarity, like a Fellini film has a corner of the eye visual familiarity with Rome. Rome on the ground is a mass of people and traffic from hell.
Today's film, AFTERSHOCK, is an historical account of the 1976 earthquake at Tangshan. Not a single building was constructed to withstand an earthquake. It was mostly old and aging buildings, some new, didn't matter. It all came tumbling down in less than 15 minutes. The entire city crumbled to the ground. Outside was no safer than inside with blocks and bricks in the air from crumbling buildings. The recreation of it for film made it as close to being there as Lu Chuan's film, The City of Life and Death, the account of the Rape of Nanjing in 1937. The magnitude of the devastation to a city's population was about the same from the Japanese invasion of Nanjing as the earthquake in Tangshan in 1976. I don't recall Nanking's population figures, but I remember the Japanese killed a third of the city's population, and Chinese cities are tremendously populous. A quarter million died in Tangshan. Usually it's 3 times the number that died that are wounded in one way or another. All survivors were devastated, utterly. These two historical films are sobering to see some of what Chinese people have had to endure in the past few hundred years. Zhang Yimou's TO LIVE is another historical drama from the time of the Revolution on through the Cultural Revolution, what it took to stay alive in China in the 20th Century, and the rigors of living.
Parallel the seeming documentary of the time, we have the story of this family torn apart in just a few minutes. The woman sees her husband walk into a building that collapsed on him, and the upper floors of the building had her two children, who went with the avalanche of the collapsing apartment building. She watched from standing in the street in front of the building. They were collapsing all around her. It wasn't a phony disaster scene like a Hollywood film praised for it's "visual effects," meaning phony ocean waves made by computer, phony buildings toppling, all of it looking so hyper-computer-active there's no sense of reality to it. In these Chinese films, especially this one, Aftershock, it's so real it's unsettling like the chill that runs over the body before a shudder, though without the shudder, just the chill coursing through the blood, it feels like. One woman, meaning it with all her heart, shook her fist at the sky and shouted, God You Bastard!!! (in Chinese). Among the Jews, the Holocaust made many of them say the same thing. I believe I would too. I might have even a little more to add to it. How else can one express one's displeasure? God knows there are times that's a legitimate response. It has no more relevance than hitting the ocean with a whip. However, the gesture is important to the individual feeling the need to vent extreme feelings.
It's an odd thing that the last three films I've seen, three in three days, have been stories that wrench the heart. It's almost like a contest to see which one can tear me up the worst. At the time of the quake, rescuers found both the kids alive, though barely, and they could only get one, not the other. They forced the mother to decide which to save. She said the son. They dragged the boy out and left the girl. The girl, barely conscious, heard her mother say to save the son. When the girl, pictured above, maybe age 5, woke up, she was lying on the ground among the dead stretched out in rows everywhere. She stood up, saw her father dead next to her. Mother and brother gone. She wandered, following a stream of dazed people wandering. A soldier there for the rescue operation found her, picked her up and took her home. He and his wife were both in the military. They adopted her and raised her as their own. She had a good life, went to medical school in Hangzhou, a city around 600 miles to the south, below Shanghai. We followed her story, the son's story and the mother's story. Mother and son continued in Tangshan. Eventually, about 30 years later, the girl, then in her 30s, living in Canada with an Anglo husband, went back to Tangshan to help with relief over an earthquake that had hit there again. Working in the relief effort, she heard a man telling a woman the story of his experience in the earlier earthquake, she revealed herself and the twins found each other.
Brother took her to meet mother. Mother broke down into uncontrollable grief believing her dead for 32 years. Girl fell into grief. They both dissolved to the floor on their knees. The initial display of extreme emotion gradually softened on the outside, though never let up on the inside. The story followed this one family to see how they got by over the next 30 years, their lives before, during and after. The title Aftershock refers to the shock that stayed with the survivors all the rest of their lives, a deep wound that never heals. Like the girl, when she's grown and with her father by adoption many years after, she said to him she hears in her head, "Save my son." Abandoned by her mother on the verge of dying, she by chance survived. None of the three ever got their lives back. They amounted to survivors the rest of their lives. They only survived, nothing more. I was grateful for this film like I was grateful for the film about Nanjing. We hear on the news, 250,000 die in China earthquake. We think, there's a lot of people in China. They'll never miss 250,000. If we think that. Just another disaster on the evening news. At least it's not here. If it bleeds it leads. Something to keep us tuned in. These two films show that the "inscrutable" Chinese, who are also faceless to the American populace, feel just like we feel. They care deeply. They have hearts. They have souls. They want to love. They want to be loved. They want to live.