Art can sometimes help us understand a tragedy, and there’s no shortage of films—fictional or documentary—that attempt to recount world tragedies. Michael Moore’s 2002 feature Bowling for Columbine examined the reasons for gun violence in American schools, particularly the Columbine High School massacre; more recently, a dramatization of a European family caught in Thailand’s 2004 tsunami was captured in The Impossible.
Fallen City explores the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan, China, earthquake—an 8.0 magnitude monster that killed more than 69,000 people. In the five years following one of China’s most devastating natural disasters—its anniversary falls on May 12—there have been several films made regarding the earthquake, including Xiaogang Feng’s gratuitous drama Aftershock and Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. First-time director Zhao Qi, who produced Lixin Fan’s excellent Last Train Home, joins this conversation, but doesn’t add much in terms of new dialogue.
Qi focuses on the mountain city of Beichuan one year after the earthquake, and follows three sets of stories. There’s 14-year-old Hong, whose inability to cope with the loss of his father only seems to be the start of his problems. Meanwhile, a married couple whose 11-year-old daughter died under the rubble of a collapsed school can’t decide whether to have another child, as many childless couples around them have chosen to do.
The third story is perhaps the most interesting. A woman named Li who lost almost everyone in her family—three sisters, a daughter, and a granddaughter—takes on the role of community director at the makeshift temporary housing complex. While awaiting the new government-sanctioned apartments to be constructed, Li makes it her mission to restore some sense of normalcy and happiness to the displaced citizens. It’s not until an unexpected twist partway through the film that audiences are able to understand Li’s true motives.
While it goes without saying that the film is emotionally draining, recycled earthquake footage and regurgitated responses to predictable questions leave the depiction of the tragedy and its aftermath feeling stale. There’s a sense that political propaganda has watered down the film, and it’s tough to see past that.