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2020-05-21 11:59:33

Even amid death and destruction, hope persists if you look hard enough. That’s the message one film is delivering at a time when the entire planet is in the throes of the worst pandemic in decades.

The Chinese movie “108” — or “Wonder in the Temple,” as it’s known in English — tells the story of more than 100 pregnant women who gave birth soon after a devastating earthquake in the southwestern Sichuan province 12 years ago. The magnitude 8 Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, left more than 80,000 people dead or missing. It flattened villages, including schools full of children, their collapses hastened by shoddy building materials.

Based on real-life stories, the film follows the women as they take shelter at a Buddhist temple in the county-level city of Shifang, where they then give birth to 108 children. With the earthquake causing severe damage to a local maternity hospital, where the women had been waiting to give birth, the temple was one of the few structures that remained more or less intact.

“After many lives passed away, there were newborns,” the film’s director, Kong Jiahuan, told Sixth Tone. “The number 108 is the collective memory we want to preserve. … The 108 lives brought hope to people who experienced tragedy.”

The abbot (in yellow) of the Buddhist temple poses for a group photo with the 108 children who were born there just after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, Shifang, Sichuan province, 2018. Courtesy of Wan Lei

The abbot (in yellow) of the Buddhist temple poses for a group photo with the 108 children who were born there just after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, Shifang, Sichuan province, 2018. Courtesy of Wan Lei

The birth of the 108 babies at the temple became a favorite story among the locals, as the number holds an auspicious significance in Buddhism.

“108” was filmed at the temple and its surrounding areas, and more than 90% of the extras in it survived the quake, according to Kong.

“We wanted to make a film that helped people see that we need to understand each other, support each other in times of crisis,” he said. “For me, those who have experienced (the earthquake) must have different feelings... so using ordinary people as actors can preserve these sincerest emotions.”

“108” was screened in May at the Beijing International Film Festival, which turned into a virtual event due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its release comes at a time when China and most of the world is still battling a contagious disease that has so far killed more than 328,000 people.

Like Kong, other Chinese moviemakers as well as ordinary citizens have used video as a medium for sharing stories of people combating the contagion, documenting the busy hospitals and deserted streets of Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first detected.

Historical natural disasters have served as the premise for several Chinese movies over the years. Feng Xiaogang’s disaster drama “Aftershock,” set in the aftermath of the even-deadlier Tangshan earthquake of 1976, was a massive hit following its release in 2010.

Kong said he was hoping to premiere “108” to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake this month. That plan was stalled, however, when official permission to reopen the country’s movie theaters was delayed because of lingering public health concerns.

“The current atmosphere is very similar,” Kong said, comparing the emotional tolls of the earthquake and the pandemic.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A promotional poster for the film “108.”)