Directed by Du Haibin. 2009. 117 minutes.
In Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.
by France Pepper, film reviews for East Asian Media Services, University of Illinois, 2009
Du Haibin’s documentary about the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake that struck at 2:28 PM (14:28) on May 12, 2008, captures the perspective of local people and how they coped with reconstructing their lives. The film begins with an English subtitle which translates a slogan on the side of a truck “Unite our strength for rescue efforts against the Earthquake.” One of Du’s underlying themes throughout his film is the presence of government and propaganda in contrast to the reality of the situation. Premier Wen Jiabao’s arrival on the scene in the county town Beichuan, which was the epicenter of the earthquake, sparks criticism from locals, as does the government in general and their handling of the situation. Paralleling their anger and frustration is an attempt by the survivors to make sense of the disaster.
On the one hand, this film appears to be geared towards an audience familiar with Chinese society and values. It emphasizes Chinese pragmatism such as farmers stating they need a quick response to the situation because they need to farm in order to continue to have a livelihood; or solace found in a Daoist or Buddhist temple that the earthquake was a matter between Heaven and Earth-even beyond the gods; and celebrating the Lunar New Year- China’s most important festival- even under duress and in the dark because the power goes out. However, by the time the film ends, the viewer can easily empathize with universal human reactions to any disaster- How could this have happened? Who is to blame? Why did the kids nap upstairs that day? And the conclusion that people can overcome the worst of hardships.
From a cinematographic point of view, Du’s down-to-earth lens leaves you practically feeling the dust of the earthquake in your lungs. He portrays the reality of daily life as early as ten days after the earthquake where people are salvaging pieces of metal with their bare hands from collapsed buildings and selling them to buy food. He follows a young man who walks barefoot in the rubbled streets wearing a ‘found” torn coat and whose madness makes him oblivious to the madness surrounding him. A year after the disaster, the government is proud to showcase a completely reconstructed and thriving small town near the epicenter while the area itself has become a tourist spot for domestic travelers who are sold old photographs of what Beichuan looked like before the quake hit. Life goes on.
This documentary is especially informative when studying contemporary Chinese society, how the government still plays a major role in shaping public attitude towards the communist party and, at the same time, takes a close look at the lives of ordinary people. This two-tiered perspective is emblematic of how many aspects of Chinese society play out in reality.
Copyright © by France Pepper 2009