I was born at the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and grew up in Deng’s era of opening and reform. It was a period of abrupt and intense change in China. Once schooled in communist teachings, I was later exposed to Western thinking, so as a filmmaker I developed a perspective that was different from both mainstream Chinese ideology and Western preconceptions of this country and its people.
Thirty years of unprecedented economic boom have lifted the material lives of millions in China, but they have also clouded people’s hunger for the truth and the reality behind giant propaganda machines. Pragmatism and profit have become essential, while humanity and critical reflection have become rare. The real China is as elusive as ever today, and neither China’s insiders nor outsiders have access to a clear image of this fast-changing nation. But it is my mission to capture glimpses of China’s true human face through the power of film.
The story of Beichuan is just one of many that remained untold. The city lost some 30,000 lives in the May 2008 earthquake. But added to the tragedy was a lack of compassion and desire to understand what was really lost in the disaster. Much of the population took news reports as the last word on the matter, and Beichuan quickly became a tourist destination. By giving voice to the survivors, Fallen City provides direct and intimate access to the people behind the statistics and headlines. It is not an exploration of the magnitude of the disaster, but a portrait of human choice and human nature writ large in the wake of a tragedy.
I remember feeling the first jolts of the earthquake in my office in Beijing. An hour later, we learned there had been an earthquake 3,000 kilometers away. We were shocked at its strength. The number of casualties reported grew by the thousands with each hour.
I’ll remember for the rest of my life the day when I arrived in the worst-hit city in the earthquake zone, Beichuan. The wreckage was greater than anything in a Hollywood disaster film. Survivors stumbled along with their belongings in baskets; a lady was crawling among the debris of a school, crying for her only son. A man was begging rescuers to stop digging him out because he would rather die with his wife and child, who lay beneath him; a young boy was checking every body bag for his parents. Sirens screeched, helicopters deafened, smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants. For a while, all I could do was cry. But then, my instincts led me to film very wide and long shots, slowly and quietly. It was the only way to make sense of the turmoil, and it captured the soul of the disaster.
After a flurry of headlines, Beichuan soon slipped into the dark. The doctors, the soldiers, the volunteers, the journalists — all came and went. The whole country moved its eyes to the Olympic Games, and shortly afterward, Beichuan became a tourist destination. But the survivors’ true stories had not been heard. The many twists and turns, the many manifestations of loss and grief that continue years, even lifetimes, after the disaster, ultimately reveal something fundamental about human nature.
Fallen City lets the survivors tell their tale. It does not present these characters as victims, but as voices representing a troubled social and human condition at large. Forced to reconstruct their lives from the rubble, they remind us of the importance of choice and purpose as values are being overturned so rapidly during China’s great age of progress.
Fallen City is the second film, after Last Train Home, in my continued exploration and interpretation of what is happening in China and to individual consciousness during an era of fundamental social and economic upheaval. Amid torrents of change and confusion, these films catch elusive truths and offer a candid view of this country.
— Qi Zhao, Director of Fallen City