The Lasting Trauma of China’s Wenchuan Earthquake Survivors
18 Aug, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:2901

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 Jian, filmmaker

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.

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.

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