'Aftershock' Becomes the Highest-Grossing Film in China

"23 seconds. 32 years" is the mysterious tagline printed on movie posters across China.

Adapted from Zhang Ling's novel "Aftershock," the Feng Xiaogang-directed movie of the same name tells the story of a family torn apart by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed at least 240,000.

When both her son and daughter are stuck beneath the same cement slab, Yuan Ni must choose whom to save. Her agonizing decision would shape the fate of her family for 32 years to come.

Although the technical reproduction of the 23-second earthquake is epic in itself, the vivid portrayal of the repercussions of the disaster are even more memorable.

"The shock of this movie lies not in the buildings but rather in each person's heart," director Feng told entertainment site Groove Asia.

"Aftershock" is the first Chinese movie to play on IMAX, an IMAX-Huayi Brothers partnership that illustrates China's growing clout in the film industry.

"Over the short term, there's really nowhere in the world that is as active as China right now," IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond told the Hollywood Reporter.

When asked whether working in China has become easier, Gelfond said, "Our approach to China has been to become part of the fabric of the culture."

"Aftershock" is showing on an unprecedented 4,000 screens across the nation, modern Chinese history's widest theatrical release, and has already raked in more than about $78 million. In less than three weeks after its premier July 22, "Aftershock" became the highest-grossing domestic movie ever made.

The box-office success comes partly from the movie's being the only major film showing across the country, as well as its heart-wrenching storyline. "Aftershock" is an appropriate title for the film, as it refers to both the physical destruction the earthquake caused and the mental trauma of a mother's decision to sacrifice one of her own children to save the other.

Earthquake Movie "Aftershock"

Teary-eyed audiences are ubiquitous across the nation. Ren Dong, theater personnel at Wanda Cinemas, admitted that he, too, was moved to tears.

"I was especially touched by an old woman who left in a state of distress," he told ABC News. "She had been rescued from the rubbles, so the film had a very direct emotional impact on her."

Similarly, 74-year-old Tangshan survivor Tian Jingrong said, "All of a sudden, I was back at Tangshan. The buildings collapsing, the people dying, the screaming, the blood ... all of it was real. Over the years, those 20 seconds or so have become blurry in my memory but the special effects recreated the scene."

Feng's indisputable directorial talent stretches beyond his ability to choreograph scenes and direct acting: He has an unparalleled understanding of his audience. Such acuity enables him to command emotion from his viewers. This commercially successful director has earned the title "Spielberg of China."

Distributors are negotiating to bring the film to North America.

The Hollywood Reporter reviewed "Aftershock" and wrote, "Feng ditches his usual astute-tongued humor and feisty characters to concentrate on stimulating the tear ducts through traditional but polished storytelling technique."

Although some people have complained that "Aftershock" is no more than a family melodrama that could have taken place in the context of any major disaster, the film has special meaning for a country that experienced the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century. Aftershock was shot in Tangshan, which contributed funding.

For one scene that features a paper-burning ceremony for those who lost their lives, Feng recruited actual survivors as extras. There was no need for them to fabricate emotion because they were mourning their loved ones.

Xinhua reported that about 10,000 locals watched the "Aftershock" premier at Tangshan Stadium with tears brimming in their eyes.

"I am still young and therefore have no idea what it must have been like to experience something so tragic, but I can imagine that this film was really cathartic for those survivors in the audience," a student said upon exiting the theater.

"In addition, 'Aftershock' lends a profound understanding to future generations."

Humanitarian Spirit of "Aftershock"

Despite praise from the mainstream media, however, Feng has faced a tirade of complaints regarding overt product placement in a tragedy (the film features certain brands of alcohol, insurance, cell phones, cars and sportswear).

He dismissed them with the simple explanation that the commercial aspect of Chinese film is inevitable, as domestic films can only profit through limited channels.

Ultimately, "Aftershock" is a film that embodies perennial themes the Chinese revere: family, loyalty and love.

Aftershock preaches a humanitarian spirit through a tale of compassion and forgiveness, encouraging those who are traumatized to move on with their lives.