When Wang Deng (Jingchu Zhang) was a little girl, she was actually Fang Deng, living in Tangshan with her parents and twin brother Fang Da, a carefree existence other than the occasions they had to stand up to the local bullies, and even that had no real consequences. But one hot summer's night in 1976, disaster struck as a massive earthquake hit the region, levelling the buildings and killing two-hundred-and-forty thousand people, among them Deng's father. She and her brother were left trapped under the rubble, leading her mother to take a terrible decision...
If you've seen Sophie's Choice, you'll have some idea of what that decision was about, for the distraught mother has to choose between saving one child or another, with the remaining infant left to die. Although this began by appearing as if we were in disaster movie territory, what it actually was leaned more towards family saga with a Chinese flavour. A huge hit in its native land, it set out to commemorate the victims and survivors of the two devastating earthquakes to hit the country in the space of about forty years, and did this by setting up the family at the start then proceeding to tear them apart dramatically.
This means Deng's mother stayed in what remained of the city to bring up her brother, now missing an arm from his ordeal, and the little girl left for dead, then found a while later and rescued, by which time her remaining family members have gone. She ends up being adopted by a childless couple and taken miles away, never aware that she has surviving relations other than maybe grandparents or her aunt, but as the years go by she makes no move to contact them. That's because the voice of her mother haunts her down time, picking Fang Da over her, understandably not something you can easily forget your own parent saying, and providing the emotional heart of the film.
And it does get emotional, but never quite lapses into all out, teeth-gnashing melodrama thanks to some restrained acting until the big moments, and director Xiaogang Feng exhibiting a steady hand over what could have been histrionic and over the top. No mean feat when it kicks off with a big effects sequence that recreates the calamity for a fair amount of the opening act, rendered with state of the art computer graphics that don't quite convince, but make their point very well: you're in no doubt that the situation is dire. The story is bookended with the 2008 earthquake decades later that inevitably brings together the broken relationships, going all out to bring the audience to tears.
So if it does get sentimental, it's not as if the real events are nothing to be upset about, and for the most part the plot prefers to build up to its finale with a series of more personal drama. Using a selection of actors, we see the action split between Deng and Da in separate cities, and sometimes separate countries, as she suffers the loss of her foster mother and falls pregnant by an unworthy boyfriend, choosing to live life as a single parent, as he marries and has a child of his own while wrestling with the stubborness of a guilt-wracked mother. For a film that made its name on the big setpieces, it's more effective in the smaller points, veering close to soap opera but with an authenticity about its concerns. It would probably mean more to Chinese audiences, but they do find a universality in its warmth and sorrow, at times both in the same scene. Just don't go in expecting an Oriental version of an Irwin Allen movie. Music by Li-guang Wang.