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1428 – The Aftermath of the Sichuan Earthquake

Du Haibin’s film “1428” captures a variety of scenes from post earthquake Beichuan in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Even though I was in China at that time, and remember checking the news hourly for days, there was still very little I knew about the conditions in Sichuan at that time. All of the images were being very carefully selected before they were shown on TV, but this film manages to capture everything that was left unseen.

The documentary begins just 10 days after the earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people, and shows how chaotic life can be as people struggle to know what steps to take next. Many people spent their days trying to scavenge scrap metal from collapsed buildings to sell, while others looted their neighbors’ apartments, some searched hopelessly for family members, and others started to discuss rebuilding the temple. It was a strong reminder that there is no way to prevent these kinds of disasters, and few ways to prepare for life after them.

For being a film about the largest disaster China has faced in the last 30 years, I was surprised that there wasn’t much time spent on talking about death, instead this work is much more concerned with how life moves on afterward.

This is highlighted by Du Haibin’s interest in a father and his mentally disabled adult son. The man is eligible to move into a shelter, but his son is not, so they remain in a small shack built out of the rubble of other buildings. They live off of what the father manages to sell, and stay there for more than 7 months (it’s not clear if they ever move). This provides a very interesting glimpse at mental health in China.

Another great moment captured is a discussion between old men as to why the earthquake happened. Had the Buddha allowed this because they had grown the wrong kind of water lilies? Was the Earth God upset because many people had stopped worshiping him, and his temple was in disrepair? Or perhaps it was because they had insulted one of these Gods in another way they had not yet mentioned? Some decide that it is a clear indication that the temples must be rebuilt, while others see it as a sign that the old religions are a waste of time.

I thought the most interesting theme that developed through out the movie is how the local people try to find a way to criticize the way some of them had been cut off from aid. To me it seemed like most of them had legitimate complaints, like the old woman who was denied an electric blanket because she had lost her ID card during the earthquake. Every time a person would begin to raise a complaint a neighbor would quickly step in and ask why they are criticizing the communist party. Given the choice many would shut up, but one old woman said “the party is wonderful, but I think there are some problems in the local government.”

This simple sentence I think underlines so many of China’s problems. The national gov’t is unwilling to see arguments against the local gov’ts as anything but an attack on the whole party.

I would recommend this film to anyone interested in disaster relief, Chinese civil society, rural life in china, or Chinese family values.

I’m not sure how widely available this film is for purchase, but it is available for streaming through Amazon, and if someone could check Netflix and comment below that would be a big help.

Tomorrow marks the 3rd anniversary of the Earthquake and we’ll be looking at China’s response in those first few days.

A Few Things to Watch

I’ve watched a few China themed movies lately and wanted to make a couple of recommendations for this very snowy winter.

The Painted Veil Poster

The Painted Veil – This isn’t historical, but it is a pretty great glimpse of what life in rural China would have looked like around 1900. The movie is about a doctor who accepts a position in the countryside treating an epidemic. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts give good performances. definitely worth a watch.

I must admit that I’m a bit partial to this movie because it was filmed just a few miles from Yizhou, where I lived for a year.

China: A Century of Revolution – This one can be a bit daunting at first, all 3 parts total up to 6 hours of documentary fun. I recommend this series for those of you who are interested in learning more about China’s recent history, but don’t want to read. The big value of this documentary is all of the historical footage, paired with a lot of interviews with “commoners.”

I have watched this with Party members and they were very impressed at how balanced the documentary was, and how it sticks to the facts.

The first section is focused on China from 1911-1949, also known as the Republican era. The second section looks at the early Communist period, from 1949- to the early 1970’s. The final section gives a great overview of China’s change from command economy to capitalism.

Chung Kuo - Cina Poster

Chung Kuo – Cina This is perhaps the most intense of these three. Michelangelo Antonioni was commissioned by Mao during the cultural revolution to show the many achievements of the Communist Party. The resulting product was banned in China shortly after its completion, and Antonioni was labeled an anti-communist.

The funny thing is, that the film was made by setting up a camera in several places and just letting it run. Antonioni simply introduces each location and gives a brief explanation of what is happening.

If you have been to China, put this in your must watch pile. There are amazing scenes of Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, and is a great reminder of how much some things have changed, while others have remained frozen in time. Also several scenes of Chinese children singing propaganda songs are fascinating.