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Toronto 2010: 'Aftershock' hits TIFF

September 18, 2010 |  1:36 pm


"Aftershock," an earthquake film released in China this year that quickly became the country's all-time box-office leader for a domestic movie, played as something of an afterthought this weekend in Toronto. 

The movie's release in China was timed to the 34th anniversary of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which claimed more than 240,000 lives, and the film took in more than $76 million. (Hollywood's "Avatar" remains the all-round Chinese box office champ, making more than $200 million in China.) "Aftershock" is also the first Chinese film made in conjunction with IMAX, but it currently has no U.S. distributor.

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, who was unable to attend the festival due to shooting commitments in China, the film is bookended by depictions of the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The story follows the lives of twins, one boy and one girl, who are separated by the first earthquake and reunited in the aftermath of the second, tracing their personal changes as China moves from the years of the Cultural Revolution to its much more capitalist incarnation today.

"Aftershock" fuses the spectacle of a disaster movie with the tearjerker elements of a more typical Chinese melodrama; a review in the Hollywood Reporter said the film "clearly harbors ambitions of encapsulating China's strenuous road to prosperity through one family's saga over 32 years." Although the film has found a rapt audience in China, even its director has admitted it has faults. In Chinese-language interviews, he has expressed frustrations with restrictions that China's government still places on the content of film.

The film is based to some extent on a novella by Chinese-born, Toronto-based writer Zhang Ling, who introduced the film at Friday's screening. Speaking by phone Saturday morning, she said the screening didn't attract many Chinese Canadians.  "Most of the Chinese people in town, they've already watched the DVD from other sources," she said.

Zhang noted that while the movie is based on the book, the movie is not the book. (Published in 2007, the book does not include the scenes of the second earthquake, which hadn't even happened yet.) 

"I was a little worried about the Chinese element being lost on the audience, but it seemed to go very well," she said. "It was a full house and everybody cried. It went much, much better than I thought."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: A scene for  from "Aftershock." Credit: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival