China Power

China, Aftershock & Patriots

What Feng Xiaogang blockbuster Aftershock says about patriotism in China.

What better at a time when people are asking if the country is going mad than a good old-fashioned patriotic movie? This seems to be the response from the public judging by the takings for Chinese blockbuster Aftershock (well, the official takings, at least).

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, the movie follows a woman’s three-decade struggle to cope with the after effects of the catastrophic Tangshan earthquake that claimed an estimated 250,000 lives in 1976. The magnitude 7.8 quake was the deadliest of the last century and came in a momentous year for China in political terms as well—Zhou Enlai died in January that year, while Mao Zedong and military leader Zhu De died later that year.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency:

‘By Friday, the film had raked in more than 400 million yuan, breaking the record of the highest-grossing Chinese film ‘Founding of a Republic’, which featured more than 100 stars and was directed by film mogul Han Sanping.’

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The movie is said to have grossed $5.3 million on its opening day, surpassing the total posted by James Cameron’s Avatar earlier this year, although some critics have suggested that the figure has been inflated. Feng, though, has been quick to dismiss such criticism as coming from ‘elites’ who are ‘worried the Americans will lose face. How can it be possible that a local film beats a Hollywood blockbuster? Something must be wrong!’

Feng is no stranger to hyperbole over the movie, half of which was funded by the Tangshan city government, telling AP last month that: ‘You can call it a disaster movie, but the real disaster is the havoc it wreaks on the human heart after the earthquake.’

So just how overt is the patriotism in Aftershock? I asked China-based writer and film blogger Dan Edwards, who has already seen the movie, for his take.

He told me: ‘I wouldn't say the patriotic message is overt—I think one of the signs of the government's increasing sophistication in propagating messages to the Chinese people is that they rarely indulge in broadcasting blatantly ideological messages these days. They’ve clearly studied mainstream Hollywood in this regard, and the ways in which many American films convey subtle ideological messages.’

This comparison with Hollywood is a fair one—one only need look at movies like (the truly awful) Pearl Harbor, directed by Michael Bay, to see that US filmmakers are not averse to a bit of feel-good flag waving.

But Edwards adds that in this case, the patriotism angle is aimed not at emphasizing China’s growing military strength, but is instead intended to focus on internal unity.

‘The message is clearly tabulated towards a domestic audience that is only too aware of China's problems and divisions,’ he told me. ‘The emphasis here is on internal unity and the strength of the Chinese people as they overcome disasters and build a prosperous nation together. In terms of the message, and indeed the film's story, the outside world is almost completely irrelevant.’