The Big One

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In expert hands, natural disasters are fail-safe box-office fodder, and when it comes to dramatizing two of China's deadliest cataclysms, such hands appear to belong to 51-year-old movie director Feng Xiaogang. Hugely successful and blessed with a gift for depicting the kinds of characters and situations that ordinary Chinese flock in their millions to see, Feng has just released his latest blockbuster. Entitled Aftershock, it's a massive, mawkish adaptation of Zhang Ling's eponymous 2006 novel of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. That disaster claimed at least 240,000 lives, but the plot of Aftershock carries forward to 2008 and the Sichuan quake, which left 87,000 dead or missing. The movie hit the screens just six days before the 34th anniversary of the Tangshan horror.

The fact that Tangshan took place within living memory and that Sichuan is still a raw trauma doesn't seem to trouble Feng. On one level, "we will show an earthquake that the audience feels is real," he says. On another, Feng is confident that he can decently convey "the hurt deep in people's hearts — the wound that still exists after dozens of years." And finally, there's the obligation to tell "a good story." That's something audiences have come to expect from him. Since his first film, the 1994 comedy Gone Forever with My Love, Feng has directed a dozen box-office hits. He lacks the arty reputation of Beijing Film Academy graduates like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and is an unknown on the international festival circuit, but Feng is happy working in the mainstream. He began his career building sets for an army drama troupe, before getting into TV and rising to prominence as the director of the early 1990s drama Beijinger in New York — a background that has steeped him in populist entertainment. "I have to think whether the audience will come to see the movie," he says.

Feng properly hit his commercial stride when he became the first mainland director to release his movies in the relaxed period between Christmas and the Lunar New Year, when people have more time and money for the cinema. Dream Factory, a 1997 comedy about a group of friends who decide to make extra cash by impersonating characters according to their clients' needs, was the first hesuipian, as these festively timed films are now called, and took in $5 million, about six times what it cost to make. Feng has made a hesuipian most years since, with great success. In late 2008, it was the romantic comedy If You Are the One, which featured Ge You, the lead in several Feng films, playing opposite Taiwan-born star Shu Qi. Feng is directing a sequel for late 2010 release.

According to film critic Tan Fei, the huge popularity of Feng's films has helped drive the commercialization of the entire Chinese film business. "The Chinese movie industry has gone from the planned economy to the second biggest movie market in the world today, and Feng is a milestone figure in that development," says Tan. "He has really made a connection to the audience through his work."

Feng has treated serious topics before (infidelity in 2003's Cell Phone and war in 2007's Assembly) but Aftershock is easily his most somber film to date. As if a deadly earthquake weren't devastating enough, a Tangshan mother is forced to decide between saving her son or daughter. Both are trapped under a collapsed building, and rescuers can reach only one of them before the structure topples. She chooses the son, but, unbeknownst to her, the daughter miraculously survives. With her mother's betrayal fresh in her ears, the little girl flees her family and is raised by a husband and wife in the People's Liberation Army. Thirty-two years later, she travels to help victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. There she sees how another mother is forced to make a similar choice, and the experience changes her appraisal of the past. It's an impossibly sentimental treatment but hallmark Feng.

Tan claims that Aftershock marks a new stage in the filmmaker's career. "From this movie, you can see that he's changing from a populist director to a civic-minded director," Tan says, "with more responsibility and higher moral standards." But if Feng really does have a newfound sense of social obligation, it doesn't include the need to address (or even allude to) one of the most painful issues arising from the Sichuan quake: allegations that official corruption led to the construction of substandard schools, which collapsed and killed thousands of children. In Feng's Sichuan, there are no protesting parents, critical journalists or jailed dissidents like Tan Zuoren, who in February was sentenced to five years for carrying out an investigation into the schools. Then again, such a movie would never see a mainland release, and Feng, whatever his private views on Sichuan, cannot be expected to commit career suicide at the height of his game. Aftershock may help give focus to a nation's grief, but like the rest of Feng's corpus it studiously avoids making any shocks of its own.

with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing