To some, Aftershock may appear to be China’s answer to Roland Emmerich’s 2012, but nothing could be further than the truth. Not a lavish spectacle concerned with visual effects, this is a potent character-based drama which finds time for well-earned tear-jerking. Upon its release, Aftershock became the second highest grossing film in its home country of China, earning an astonishing 673 million yuan (around $100 million USD). Watching the movie, it’s easy to understand the appeal. It is a film which goes above and beyond the call of duty, and it’s genuinely rare to come across motion pictures so dramatically satisfying and emotional. The fact that its production values are on the same level as big-budget Hollywood flicks is the icing on the cake.

In 1976, a 7.8 magnitude quake struck the industrial Chinese city of Tangshan. It was a devastating event, destroying countless buildings and accumulating a death roll of approximately 240,000. The film shows us a family who are caught in the quake, with mother Li Yuanni (Xu Fan) losing her husband amid the chaos and faced with the possible death of her two children, daughter Fang Deng (Zhang Zi-feng/Zhang Jingchu) and son Fang Da (Zhang Jiajun/Li Chen). Both are trapped in the rubble of their home, and Yuanni is confronted with the choice of which one to save. She chooses her son. Later, Deng’s body is pulled from the rubble and left for dead, but, miraculously, she later wakes up. Unaware of where her mother or brother are, and having heard her mother’s decision, Deng winds up being adopted by a loving family. Over the following thirty-two years, she lives with her new family, never attempting to find her mother or brother, or even try to contact them to let them know that she is still alive. Meanwhile, Fang Da grows up and becomes successful in his career, but his mother finds it difficult to move on with her life, unable to forgive herself for her decision back in 1976.

Aftershock is not a disaster movie in the Hollywood sense. The title actually refers to the emotional and psychological scars of the earthquake victims over subsequent decades. Hence the majority of the narrative is spent examining the lives of the central characters as they deal with their grief after the ’76 quake. Running at a mammoth 130 minutes, the script is expansive in its exploration of each of the characters, delving into familial drama and coming-of-age scenarios. Consequently, we grow to care about the characters and we get an intimate window into their lives, observing how the events in ’76 altered their lives forever. However, Aftershock falls short of perfection. Due to the lengthy running time, it feels over-long, with some dramatic scenes that could’ve been trimmed or excised completely. Worse, Fang Deng marries a Canadian lawyer, and the English-language scenes set in Canada are positively ghastly. Performances are incredibly stilted and awkward, and it sounds as if all the dialogue was dubbed. It’s genuinely terrible stuff which sticks out like a sore thumb. A huge dramatic development towards the end of the movie is rushed as well – it seems as if a key scene is missing, which may leave you baffled.

From top to bottom, the performances are top-flight, brimming with honesty and humanity. Each of the actors handled the emotional requirements of their roles with confidence, and they always feel desperately human, which makes it easier to connect with them. The initial earthquake happens quite early into the film, and the result is horrifying in its immediacy. Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop were behind the special effects, and it’s easy to recognise their meticulous digital craftsmanship throughout the chilling earthquake sequence. Buildings collapse, debris falls all over the place, and people are crushed in harrowing ways. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping and enthralling earthquake portrayals ever seen in cinema. The images of the aftermath are just as extraordinary, with extensive sets and superb make-up. All the more impressive is the fact that Aftershock was produced for a scant sum amounting to approximately $25 million USD. That this technical luminosity was achieved on a meagre budget is nothing short of a miracle.

It’s hard to refrain from crying or at least shedding a tear during Aftershock, as it’s an emotionally powerful motion picture that does not rely on cheating or manipulation. It never feels as if director Xiaogang Feng is twisting the knife or taking delight in evoking emotion. Instead, Fend earns the emotion through powerful performances and superlative craftsmanship. Aftershock also celebrates the resilience of the Chinese citizens. Their collective loss and grief was so huge, yet they bandied together selflessly to save lives and do good deeds in times of great tragedy. And since the movie refuses to make the earthquakes the primary focus, it in no way feels exploitative. This is a magnificent film.