Even for a country historically plagued by earthquakes, the 2008 quake in the Sichuan province was devastating. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and thousands more were missing and never found, making it the deadliest quake in the country in three decades. The old town of Beichuan, home to 20,000 people, was reduced to rubble. Fallen City is a revealing account of contemporary China’s response to the disaster: Within a scant two years, the government built a new and apparently improved town close to the old Beichuan.
Fallen City is the haunting story of the survivors, whose grief over the past and anxiety about the future cannot be resolved in bricks and mortar or erased by cheerful government propaganda about “the new Beichuan.” In today’s China, even the worst disaster can be an occasion for celebrating the country’s achievements and its anticipated great future. Yet in China, as elsewhere—and as movingly captured by Fallen City—suffering in the face of death and displacement follows a path determined more by humanity’s search for meaning than by the politics of the day.
Li Mingshan, Brother Peng’s father-in-law, looking down the old city on the mountain top. Credit: Shaoguang Sun.
Qi Zha’s Fallen City, an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 28, 2014 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) as part of the 27th season of POV (Point of View), American television’s longest-running independent documentary series. POV is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Filmed over three years, Fallen City follows three stories of survivors struggling with loss and an uncertain future. Hong Shihao, only 14 years old, is coping with his father’s death. He spends a lot of time among the old town’s ruins, has increasingly strained relations with his mother, and sees his grades dropping. Under constant pressure about his studies, Hong runs away, putting his chances of going to university in jeopardy.
Mr. and Mrs. Peng, in their 30s, lost their only daughter when her school collapsed. She was 11 years old. Mr. Peng stays in a house overlooking the disaster site, tending to the family farm, while his wife flees town to recover. Other couples in similar circumstances decide quickly to have children again, but Mr. Peng can’t get over the feeling that having another child would be a betrayal of his daughter’s memory. When his wife returns, they go on to rebuild their world of two and discover a stronger love.
The story of Li Guihua adds a revealing twist to the film’s portrait of old and new Beichuan. A divorced woman in her 50s, Li lost nearly her entire family—her daughter, granddaughter and three sisters. As she struggles to care for her paralyzed mother, who no longer recognizes her, she takes on the added burden of helping to run temporary housing for the survivors and overseeing their transition to the new town. It is a role that puts her squarely in the middle of growing allegations of corruption and favoritism in the process.
Fallen City takes place mostly against the eerily poetic backdrop of rubble and ruin that is old Beichuan. Survivors wander aimlessly, as if searching for clues to their lost lives. Dogs, cats, insects and fresh shoots of grass are the only residents now. The new town, noisily rising block by block nearby, becomes a jarring second setting for the film. The voice of the government, broadcast in a seemingly continuous loop over televisions and loudspeakers, confidently proclaims, “The new Beichuan will be a safe, beautiful and culturally rich city.”
Yet the new Beichuan, for all its gleaming surfaces and the amazing speed with which it was built, is not what it seems. Residents complain about favoritism in apartment assignments, higher-than-expected costs and the poor quality and livability of the new constructions. Has the new Beichuan become a vehicle for enriching the wealthy and well-connected rather than a lifeline for the old town’s residents?
Clear-eyed and moving, Fallen City is about ordinary rural Chinese people searching for hope, meaning and identity amid the ruins of their familiar world. The film explores their hearts and minds as they try to rebuild in a town displaced both by nature and by politics, becoming a collective image of a nation torn between deeply ingrained tradition and relentless modernity.
As they continue to reestablish their lives, Peng, Li and Hong speak for a generation left to reconstruct its own hopes and values. From China’s worst natural disaster in decades to a China in the throes of transition and a fragmented developed world, Fallen City crosses boundaries to portray the journeys of people searching for their place in a changing world.
“I was in the earthquake zone three days after the disaster in May 2008,” says director Qi Zhao. “It was chaotic, but I felt that something larger than just a story of rescue was lying there. I’m privileged to be allowed to follow my characters over three years to explore something that really touches me. I’m grateful that Peng, Li and Hong trusted me, allowing me access into their lives and gradually sharing their emotions.
“Through Fallen City I want to explore how a generation was thrust into a relentless pursuit of economic growth and uprooted from its past. The earthquake is something very concrete in the film. But it’s also a metaphor for the important lesson that material comforts are not enough. Making the film changed me more than I could have imagined. Seeing the eternal feelings of family love the characters expressed, my wife and I decided to have a baby. Our son is now 5 years old.”