The May 12th, 2008 earthquake in the Chinese province of Sichuan took 68,000 lives, including 20,000 in the community of Beichuan, a town that was completely blighted. The next year the Chinese government initiated construction on a completely new Beichuan, tidy and manicured, efficient. But the survivors of old Beichuan cannot move on so easily.
First time director Qi Zhao also acted as producer on Fallen City, a straightforward, nimble documentary that follows three families left fractured by the earthquake. Mr. and Mrs. Ping are inconsolable after the death of their eleven-year-old daughter, unwilling to try for another baby as their friends and family urge them to do. 14-year-old Hong has lost his father, his relationship with his mother is strained and his grades are failing. Middle-aged Li has lost three sisters, her daughter and granddaughter, and is filling her time tending to her paralyzed mother and working as a community organizer.
Fallen City would have worked even if focused solely on these three families, the film intimate and artless as we watch them grieve, process, try to heal. Zhao gives each family space and time, but against their heartache we also watch the relentlessly cheerful efforts of the Chinese government to build a new Beichuan, "a safe, beautiful and culturally rich city," sells the newscaster. "We have made progress because we have a great party and a powerful country."
Zhao's direction is quiet, not in the least manipulative. He only presents and allows us to conclude, never using the film to persuade. We see the lottery assigning new Beichuan flats to residents. We see Mr. and Mrs. Ping travel to a population and family planning center as they consider bringing a new child into their lives. We see Hong struggle in school as his family rails against him for squandering his future. We see Li run afoul of her position as a community organizer and the Pings struggle with the funds to afford a new flat. Each of these stories, small as they seem, reveal something vital about life in China, but these revelations are never delivered with a side helping of anvil.
Zhao instead makes himself felt through lovely shots of the world growing through the debris, close-ups of praying mantises and dew-heavy petals and industrious spiders spinning elaborately beautiful webs. Among the ruins of old Beichuan we see glimpses of beauty. New Beichuan is immaculate but empty, too clean and new for spiders and mantises. As Mrs. Ping walks through the vacant flats, she remarks on the space and the pleasing climate of what is meant to be her new home. "But...there's no feeling here," she adds.