Written by L. H. M. Ling.

In the past year, I’ve had the chance to watch two recent films made, respectively, by a Chinese and Indian director and within two years of each other. These are Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock” (2010) and Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children” (2012). Though much differentiates these films, a central theme also unites them: family and its relation to politics. This post offers an opportunity for me to ruminate on this theme and its implications for both family and politics in contemporary China and India.

First, some caveats. I recognize that these two films are hardly comparable. Feng’s film was made primarily for a Chinese audience, whereas Mehta’s was for an international one (it’s British-Canadian funded). Their sensibilities, then, differ dramatically. “Midnight’s Children” is based on Salman Rushdie’s critically-acclaimed 1981 novel of the same title, whereas “Aftershock” was conceived of and written as a popular film. This lends greater philosophical import to “Midnight’s Children,” since the film conveys Rushdie’s trenchant commentary on post-independence India and its national politics. “Aftershock” merely attempted to maximize returns at the box office and it succeeded in doing so handsomely. Lastly, “Aftershock” can be said to be derivative in representation and narrative, whereas, “Midnight’s Children” tells a unique story.  A pivotal scene in “Aftershock,” for example, reproduces a motif made famous by an American film, “Sophie’s Choice” (1982), namely a mother’s agonizing decision to choose between two children. One will live, the other, she thinks, will die.

Still, as mentioned above, what ties these two films together – different as they are – is a central concern with The Family. Unlike American or other Western films on similar subjects, like “The Descendants” (2011), where family matters serve up only existential issues, Chinese and Indian treatments of The Family invariably stand in for The Nation and, by extension, The State. I do not have the space to explain here how state governance in India and China has always been based on family governance, hence the connection.[1]

In brief, “Aftershock” tells of a family rent asunder by the horrific Tangshan earthquake of 1976. The father dies in the earthquake, and the mother must choose which twin – the boy or the girl – can be rescued from under the rubble. Only one can be saved and she chooses the boy [2]. The girl also survives, unbeknownst to her mother, in the ensuing chaos. A childless couple, doctors for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), eventually adopt the girl. They shower her with affection but she grows up disaffected, never forgetting her biological mother’s rejection. Later, she marries a foreigner and lives the well-off suburban life in Canada – until the 2006 earthquake in Tangshan. She cannot stay away and returns to her homeland and home village to help with the rescue effort. There, she discovers her brother, now a successful businessman with a wife and child of his own, and her mother, who has stayed in the same small house waiting for just this moment. Despite everything, the mother has kept faith that her daughter is still alive. The daughter experiences a change of heart and accepts that her family never forsook her and they are happily reunited.

I will not attempt to summarize “Midnight’s Children” for it is a far more complicated story. Nor does it unfold linearly as “Aftershock” does. Rather, what I will mention is the film’s (and the story’s) distinctive message on family. Members may be strange (e.g. possess supernatural powers), not really like one another (e.g. one sister rats on another to the authorities), take different ideological positions (e.g. Indian vs Pakistani vs Bangladeshi), and may not even be related by blood (e.g., mixed babies at birth, uncertain parentage) but, ultimately, family means love. It binds us all, no matter what.

As someone who grew up in the East and the West combined, and have experienced the Chinese version of partition through Taiwan, I view these two films with contending emotions. Though tremendously affected by “Aftershock,” particularly when the mother kneels before her estranged daughter to ask for forgiveness (unheard of in Confucian culture), I was ultimately angered by the film’s projection of traditional family values. The disaffected girl could stand in for Taiwan, whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supposedly abandoned due to the tectonic demands of the civil war. Subsequently, Taiwan/girl drifted away to consort with foreigners but, ultimately, reunited with the “true” family back “home.” The mainland understanding of family that I felt upon seeing “Aftershock” needs to be updated to incorporate the notion of multiple families, multiple homes and multiple kinds of reunion, not just one. This is the hegemonic undertone to “Aftershock,” regardless of its rank sentimentality.

For this reason, I took to “Midnight’s Children” better. It explicitly critiques the notion of one, standard family. But “Midnight’s Children” also left me unfulfilled. Simply dazzling the viewer with the twists and turns of its hero to underscore the point that, ultimately, “love transcends all” leaves one dizzy, not enlightened. What can we do with this insight?

Perhaps what we need is a trans-national, trans-filmic dialogue. Indian and Chinese filmmakers could engage with one other about notions of Family, Nation, and State. Both states and peoples have plenty of experience to draw on. And, as the film-making industry in both countries increases in sophistication, funding, storytelling and audience, the opportunity is now. Let’s make the most of it. This one viewer waits eagerly for the results.

L. H. M. Ling is a professor and associate dean at the New School in New York.

[1] See, for example, L.H.M. Ling, “Rationalizations for State Violence in Chinese Politics: The Hegemony of Parental Governance,” Journal of Peace Research 31(4) November 1994: 393-405.

[2] If memory serves correctly, she decides only after hearing the boy call out while the girl, though she is aware of everything happening on top, never makes a sound. It could be, then, that the mother selects the boy because she thought he was alive. Or, as is often the case in Chinese society, she chooses the boy because he is the boy.

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