2021-08-17 14:13:53

For Ye Hongmei and Zhu Junsheng, it has now been 13 years since they lost their daughter. Yet their anguish remains brutally, visibly apparent.

The couple is among thousands of parents whose lives were shattered by one of China’s worst disasters of the 21st century — the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Just before 2:30 p.m. on May 12, 2008, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck southwest China’s Sichuan province, unleashing seismic waves so powerful they rattled buildings over 1,500 kilometers away in Beijing.

In Ye and Zhu’s home city of Dujiangyan, located just 25 kilometers from the epicenter, the damage was devastating. Many buildings in the city collapsed within seconds — including the downtown primary school where the couple’s 8-year-old daughter had just started afternoon classes.

Hundreds of people were trapped under the rubble. Ye and Zhu’s child was among the 246 who never made it out alive.

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

Over a decade later, memories of Wenchuan have faded in China. The ruins of the primary school where Ye and Zhu’s daughter died have been swept away; the site transformed into a panda-themed commercial street.

But the pain of the bereaved can’t be so easily erased, as Chinese filmmaker Fan Jian explores in his heart-rending new documentary “After the Rain.” 

I felt that people were forgetting the disaster ... I thought I should do something.

Since 2009, the director has been following Ye and Zhu and another family who lost a daughter during the earthquake, documenting in unflinching detail the unseen human cost of the disaster — the emotional aftershocks that ripple across generations.

“I wanted to resist oblivion,” Fan tells Sixth Tone. “I felt that people were forgetting the disaster … As a documentary maker, I thought I should do something.”

The families’ grieving process has been long and difficult, with the authorities’ response to the disaster making things more complex.

The significant number of students killed — Chinese authorities reported 5,335 schoolchildren dead or missing, though media disputed the figure — sparked public anger in 2008. Parents questioned whether some deaths could have been prevented, pointing out how several school buildings collapsed while nearby towers remained standing. Many suggested the poor quality, “tofu dregs” materials used in the school buildings made them highly vulnerable.

At the time, a senior Chinese construction expert on the government’s disaster relief panel explicitly blamed the deaths at one middle school in Dujiangyan on shoddy construction methods. But a few months later, an official investigation concluded the deaths were caused purely by the magnitude of the earthquake. Parents who protested claimed they were detained and harassed.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government offered free in-vitro fertilization to bereaved parents who wanted to bear another child; as the country still enforced a one-child policy at the time, most of the families had lost their only children.

A still from the 2011 documentary “The Next Life” shows Zhu Junsheng holding his friend's newborn son. From Douban

A still from the 2011 documentary “The Next Life” shows Zhu Junsheng holding his friend's newborn son. From Douban

Ye was among the mothers who accepted the free IVF, hoping to give birth to another daughter. Fan, the director, documented this emotional journey in a previous documentary titled “The Next Life,” which culminated in Ye giving birth to Chuanchuan — a boy — in 2011.

But as “After the Rain” makes clear, the family’s story — and their pain — didn’t end there. Fan reconnected with Ye and Zhu in 2017, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, and found the couple still struggling to process their trauma.

For the couple, the gender of the new baby had meant everything: They felt giving birth to another daughter would give them a sense of closure and the ability to carry on living a meaningful life. The fact Chuanchuan was born a boy was a heavy blow.

Zhu and Ye dressed Chuanchuan as a girl when he was an infant, and they often remind the boy that he’s only alive because of his sister’s death. Zhu especially has a tense relationship with his son, scolding him over trivial issues.

The father is still wracked by guilt over his daughter’s death. On the day of the earthquake, he had searched frantically for her in the ruins till late into the night. He saved the lives of several children but was unable to find his little girl — despite hearing her cries from beneath the wreckage.

A still shows the bereaved father Zhu Junsheng from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” From Douban

A still shows the bereaved father Zhu Junsheng from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” From Douban

In several scenes, Zhu drinks heavily and bitterly scolds himself for his failure. Yet, he appears unable to prevent himself from passing on his trauma to his second child.

“He may seem fine in everyday life — drinking, eating, and bantering with friends,” says Fan. “But on certain days, the memories will resurface.”

Several families affected by the earthquake experience similar tensions, Fan tells Sixth Tone. Some feel compelled to remember the dead, even if it means overlooking their living child. This tendency might be even stronger in China due to traditional beliefs in the transmigration of souls, with parents hoping for the return of the lost souls in their second children, the director speculates.

“After the Rain” made its debut to widespread acclaim at the FIRST International Film Festival in late July, where the feature was shortlisted for best documentary. Fan hopes the film will be able to obtain the “dragon seal” — the official approval required for a film to receive a theatrical release in China — but its fate remains uncertain.

At FIRST, held in the northwestern Chinese city of Xining, the best documentary award became mired in controversy. Though “After the Rain” was screened successfully, a winner for the category was never announced.

Fan, however, has grown used to such complications. Since quitting his job at state broadcaster CCTV in 2007, he has become well-known for exploring contentious social issues on screen. Previous documentaries have focused on the SARS crisis, tensions between migrant workers and property developers in Beijing, and the struggles faced by so-called “leftover women.” His film about the Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, “Still Tomorrow,” won the Special Jury Award at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). 

Speaking with Sixth Tone on the sidelines of the festival in Xining, Fan discusses the making of “After the Rain,” the legacy of Wenchuan, and why we should resist forgetting past disasters. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chinese filmmaker Fan Jian. Courtesy of Fan Jian

Chinese filmmaker Fan Jian. Courtesy of Fan Jian

Sixth Tone: How did you come to meet the two families and shoot a feature documentary about them?

Fan Jian: I was thinking of making a documentary about the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 but was struggling to find an angle. There were lots of images and videos circulating at that time. A year later, I learned there were people in the quake area who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and needed psychological help. I thought perhaps I could do something from this angle.

In May 2009, I started researching and found that a lot of the people receiving help from psychologists were mothers who had lost their only child during the earthquake. Most of them were hoping to give birth to another child. It was a complex mind-set because they were hoping for transmigration (of their dead child’s soul) through birth. I took my camera and started shooting.

I met many families and gradually narrowed down my potential subjects from 10 to about four or five. By the end of 2009, we ended up shooting mainly three families, including Ye Hongmei’s. During filming, Ye met the Gao family, and they became good friends. That’s how we ended up staying in touch with these two families.

We had already made a documentary — “The Next Life” — about Ye and her family. The trigger for me to continue shooting after 2017 was the final scene of “The Next Life,” when Zhu was crying in front of his daughter’s photo after Ye gave birth to a son. I had a feeling there would be tensions between father and son.

Also, it was about 10 years after the quake, and I wanted to resist oblivion. I felt that people were forgetting the disaster; their memories were fading too quickly. As a documentary maker, I thought I should do something.

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

Sixth Tone: I was in Chongqing when the earthquake hit Sichuan province, and also felt the tremor. But my memories of the disaster, too, seem to have faded with time. What can people — especially those who weren’t there to witness what happened — hold onto to remember Wenchuan, besides the official narratives? 

For me, the motivation to make documentaries is to help keep a historical record.

Fan: Even people who were in Dujiangyan and experienced the earthquake chose to forget what happened. There were two contrasting attitudes among the survivors: Many tried to forget, while others chose to remember.

There are many documentaries about the Wenchuan earthquake, such as Du Haibin’s “1428” and Zhao Qi’s “Fallen City.” They’re different from the official narrative, and to some extent, they are historical materials. 

For me, the motivation to make documentaries is also to help keep a historical record. I think for disasters like Wenchuan, the foremost function of documentaries is to record history, but to do so through personal, individual stories. It’s a kind of historical material with an author’s perspective.

Sixth Tone: After the earthquake, how much support did survivors receive as they tried to process their trauma?

Fan: The grassroots aid workers I met stayed in the communities for at least a year, helping affected families. You can’t just set up a psychological clinic for the parents, wait for them to come for consultations, and then expect everything to be OK. You have to engage with them actively and stick around for a long time.

But the aid team withdrew around 2011 for various reasons — both financial and in terms of their relationship with the local government. I wasn’t sure whether the government provided psychological support after the grassroots workers left, but I had my doubts.

For the parents, the trauma was still present. That’s why they hoped for a second child. They considered giving birth to be a way to cure themselves. They hoped if their dead child was a girl, their second child would also be female. If this “circle of life” was completed, they’d feel happier, and their mental health would improve.

I met some families who couldn’t bear a second child, and the mothers were physically and psychologically under strain. For fathers like Zhu, who lost his daughter while they were almost face-to-face, I think the PTSD might accompany him for life.

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian

Sixth Tone: Much of this documentary explores the meaning of trauma from the perspective of both adults and children. How did the children process trauma compared with the adults?

Fan: There is one part of the film that talks exclusively about pain and how adults and children have different attitudes toward it. When Chuanchuan gets circumcised, he expresses his pain very directly. His mother, Ye, merely remarks that such physical pain is nothing. There was a lot of subtext.

For adults, pain is buried in the heart. Ye has been through a lot. While this event represents Chuanchuan’s growth, it’s also about trauma. He could feel the pain in his body, but I don’t think he’s able to understand the hurt his parents have experienced since the earthquake. 

I don’t know whether Chuanchuan feels he lives under his sister’s shadow. I don’t have the answer, as he’s only 7 years old and can’t put those feelings into words. But sometimes, I thought I could see many untold emotions on the children’s faces.

Sixth Tone: When you talk about the “circle of life,” you seem to view it in terms of Chinese philosophical ideas about life and death. Could you elaborate on this?

The parents wish to reverse their life’s timeline — to make their lives move backward.

Fan: The starting point of the children’s lives is that the parents hope to have another kid so that their dead children can come back. What’s the implication of that? It means the parents wish to reverse their life’s timeline — to make their lives move backward. Some people have to treat time this way so that they can fix their traumas. If they can’t change time and let it move forward linearly, they’ll be unable to move on.

It’s part of traditional Chinese thinking toward life and death and may not necessarily be religious. I think Westerners may not understand it. But China isn’t the only culture that thinks this way. Some Thai and Japanese films — like the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul — express similar ideas.

When Ye held her son’s chubby hands late at night, she mumbled that it felt like Chuanchuan’s sister’s hands. For me, this is an example of a “circle of life.”

Sixth Tone: Ye and Zhu’s daughter attended Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyan — one of the schools in the media spotlight in 2008 due to its high number of casualties. Many parents appealed for justice in the wake of the tragedy, and their lives have been disrupted to varying degrees. You mention this side of the parents’ experience in “After the Rain,” but only briefly. Why is that?

Fan: I’m in this country; how can I speak directly about it? We can only imply and give hints to the audience. This is the pressure the country gives us. But you can see many small details. There are at least seven or eight parts that we left in there for the audience.

Fan Jian (in blue) and a crew member shoot footage for the documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Yu Zhuo

Fan Jian (in blue) and a crew member shoot footage for the documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Yu Zhuo

Sixth Tone: How are the two families now?

Fan: Let me put it this way: They’re in roughly the same state as Ye and Zhu were during the film’s final scene when they were eating: just sprinkling some salt, adding some sugar, and pouring sauce into the soup.

When I was shooting, I felt this scene wasn’t realistic, but I hoped to render a sense of detachment. For the adults, sometimes you feel very salty, other times you feel very spicy, but sometimes life feels sweet. I can’t sum up their lives with one flavor, but the most important theme in the film is uncertainty — including in their familial relationships. 

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A still from the 2021 documentary “After the Rain.” Courtesy of Fan Jian)