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Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock is exactly the kind of crap historical epic that Hollywood occasionally peddles as Oscar bait, so it makes sense that China submitted it last year for consideration in the Academy Awards’ best foreign film category. It didn’t earn a nomination, despite being the most lucrative Chinese movie ever made. Two earthquakes bookend the story: The first is the Tangshan catastrophe of 1976, which here serves to separate a young girl from her family, with the two never meeting again until 32 years later, in 2008—when a similar tragedy strikes Sichuan. In the lengthy interim, we follow the twin histories of the mother (Fan Xu), crippled by grief and unable to ever leave Tangshan, and her disabled son (Li Chen); and the daughter (Jingchu Zhang), who is adopted by a military couple. Fluency in Mandarin isn’t required to realize that Aftershock only deals in emotional extremes, from the disaster-movie gruesomeness of the opening scenes to a plot point straight out of Sophie’s Choice to the melodramatic over-shading of the family-centered narratives. We see, per the title, the irreversible hurt left by the Tangshan quake while a pristine metropolis replaces its ruins; meanwhile, Xiaogang touts the heroic relief work of the People’s Liberation Army while the failures of the Chinese government during both disasters go unmentioned. The film has some technical chops—its rendering of the ’76 earthquake is visceral and terrifying—and a few standout performances, but by the time it ends, again in Tangshan, you realize all you’ve been watching is a 128-minute advertisement for that town’s recently built monument to earthquake victims.
At 8:30 p.m.; also on Thursday, April 14 at 8:30 p.m. Both showings at E Street Cinema.