Upon entering the theatre to see Aftershock, viewers are handed a package of tissues. For most audience members, the disposable hankies are soon put to use, brushing away the tears that flow as director Feng Xiaogang's emotionally charged epic unspools. But some were also used to muffle guffaws at the blatant product placements that are scattered throughout the film.
Aftershock, which has smashed box-office records in China to become the highest grossing domestic film ever made, examines the emotional, physical and psychological toll of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake on one Chinese family during a 30-year span.
The movie has proved wildly popular, reflecting a transformational period for China that has included its stunning economic ascendance, dramatic societal changes and social upheaval. Opening in mid-July and showing on an unprecedented 4,000 screens across China, Aftershock had already raked in more than $79.4-million (U.S.) in box-office receipts by last week.
"It functions as a form of cinematic catharsis for these people who have experienced these traumatic events," said Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of A History of Pain, which explores the portrayal of trauma in Chinese literature and film.
It also embodies the unabashed commercialism that has now overtaken much of China, as well as the frictions between creative expression and government controls.
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Brazen ads for a Chinese wine brand, a mobile phone maker and a sportswear label and a prolonged sequence featuring a BMW racing along the highway are jarringly juxtaposed against the film's tragic themes. The film received government funding, and China's emergency response is depicted as more effective than historians would recall.
Mr. Feng, an already popular director who has been referred to as China's Steven Spielberg, has had to defend the often ham-fisted commercials within the film that were used to help finance the $22-million (U.S.) budget.
"Like it or not, product placement is, and will be, an important part of the Chinese film industry," Mr. Feng told Global Times, a state-controlled English language newspaper in China.
The director argues that additional revenue available to mainstream Hollywood films, including DVD sales and broadcast rights, are not nearly as lucrative in China. Genuine DVD sales have been undermined by widely available knockoffs, and Chinese television stations generally do not pay more than one million yuan ($147,600) to broadcast a Chinese movie.
In addition to the cash it received from commercial sponsors, the government of Tangshan also provided more than half the film's budget. It appears the investment was well spent as local authorities and their reaction to the earthquake are portrayed positively in the movie, and present-day Tangshan is shown as a completely rebuilt modern hub of Chinese industry.
But the film has also been criticized for whitewashing China's past. The Tangshan earthquake hit at a time when China was unprepared for a disaster of such magnitude, as it had neither the economic resources nor rescue teams and infrastructure necessary to deal with the disaster. Yet in the film, soldiers in the People's Liberation Army are shown acting heroically and reacting effectively.
The film's dramatic licence with the facts doesn't surprise Shuyu Kong, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who studies Chinese film and literature, and pointed out that all Chinese films must still be approved by state bureaucrats.
"The filmmakers have to make sure the Tangshan earthquake is portrayed in the right way," she said. "China is now a commercial society, but the state still has lots of say."
Talks are under way to bring the film to screens in Canada and the United States, but the Canadian film industry has already taken notice.
Aftershock marks the first time a Chinese film has partnered with Canada's Imax Corp. to exhibit on more than a dozen of the company's big-screen theatres in China.
There's another Canadian connection as well. One of the film's main characters moves to Vancouver and marries a Canadian. She returns to China to help with the disaster relief for the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, where she is reunited with her long-lost twin brother from whom she was separated during the Tangshan quake.
"The immigration experience is also something that Chinese audiences are interested in," Prof. Berry said.