Zhang Ling’s “Aftershock”: The Movie, the Screenwriter and the Part-time Censor

Director Feng Xiaogang’s gaze graces the cover of several publications this week, and indeed, the “disaster movie” genre in China may never be the same again thanks to him.  His adaptation of Zhang Ling’s Aftershock (张翎的 “余震”) is mesmerizing the nation’s moviegoers, and this tale of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed over 200,000 leaves many drenched in tears.

Even Time is writing about the new film, the first IMAX film ever shot outside the US, based on the fictional work by the Chinese-Canadian author. Here’s Time’s synopsis of the plot:

As if a deadly earthquake weren’t devastating enough, a Tangshan mother is forced to decide between saving her son or daughter. Both are trapped under a collapsed building, and rescuers can reach only one of them before the structure topples. She chooses the son, but, unbeknownst to her, the daughter miraculously survives. With her mother’s betrayal fresh in her ears, the little girl flees her family and is raised by a husband and wife in the People’s Liberation Army. Thirty-two years later, she travels to help victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. There she sees how another mother is forced to make a similar choice, and the experience changes her appraisal of the past.

I haven’t read the book or seen the movie (唐山大地震), but I just read a fascinating interview in the weekly SMW (2010.7.26 南都周刊), that offers insights into how the movie script was conceived: From Cold Novel to Warm Movie (从冷小说到暖电影).

As you read my translated excerpt (below) from SMW’s interview with Su Xiaowei (苏小卫)—the screenwriter for Aftershock, pictured above—keep in mind that she also puts in two days a week at the Film Review Board, i.e., she works for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the body that enforces China’s censorship guidelines.

(Note: Words inside quotation marks below are quotes from Su Xiaowei cited by the author of the article, Chen Yu (陈雨)).

The excerpt:

Besides [changes to] the structure of the story, the movie also “performed major surgery” on the theme; the basic tone of the story was altered from one of darkness and pain, to one of warmth and hope [in the film]. The novelist Zhang Ling intended to convey that even after the disaster was over, the ravaged land gradually flattened and structures rebuilt, the blood from the wounds scratched open by the earthquake in the souls of children continued to ooze silently long thereafter.

The novel emphasizes the description of how the daughter, Fang Deng, undergoes a “series of post-earthquake disasters”: her adopted mother dies, she’s molested by her adopted father, her husband falls in love with another woman, her daughter leaves home, she finds herself in a hospital unit for psychological therapy, and tries to commit suicide several times.  These somber and cruel events reflect the fate assigned to the female protagonist by Zhang Ling: Having lived through an earthquake, Fang Deng’s soul is veiled in darkness, her personality has become skewed, she cannot return to her family nor can she live a normal life. The novel leaves the reader downcast and tearful.

But “the movie is much more heart-warming, and cuts parts such as the adopted father’s sexual aggression, the husband’s infidelity and the departure of her daughter,” says Su Xiaowei. “Much more of the story is devoted to describing daily life and warmhearted emotions. After the earthquake, people overcome their grief, regain a sense of calm, and get on with their lives.”

“Film is a mass medium that speaks to greater numbers of viewers, and it’s not like a book that represents a more ‘personalized’ account,” says Su Xiaowei.  “After all, a film should offer a sense of warmth and consolation.” At the outset, Su Xiaowei was told quite clearly by the director and producer that she was to write a script for a film that would warm the hearts of the audience, not a film that would hurt their feelings and leave them in despair. The film should “cure” the daughter of her hatred for her mother.

In order to create a heart-warming theme, the movie not only cut the scene in which the adopted father violates Fang Deng, it also recasts the adopted parents as People’s Liberation Army soldiers.

“All these requirements were decided after discussion with the producer,” says Su Xiaowei frankly. “We didn’t reject a melodramatic approach to the story, but everyday life can also fully express a person’s emotions. In everyday life, the great majority of fathers would not molest their adopted daughter. We chose to represent good relations between the father and adopted daughter as in a normal life. And our film is not rated—adults and children can view it—so we intentionally altered this part.” 

4 thoughts on “Zhang Ling’s “Aftershock”: The Movie, the Screenwriter and the Part-time Censor

  1. Good point. China does not give any kind of “rating” to its films, and insists on cutting inappropriate content instead. See http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-01/27/content_9383488.htm for a recent explanation of this policy.

    In the interview, Su Xiaowei is quoted as saying: “我们的电影是不分级的, 大人小孩都看” So a better translation might be: “Since films are not rated [here in China], both adults and children can see [all of] them”.


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