The town of Beichuan was nearly obliterated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. Most of the buildings were leveled, and nearly every resident lost at least one family member. In a disaster that claimed tens of thousands of lives, left millions homeless and caused billions in damage, this one town was hit especially hard. The people of Beichuan don’t have the option of picking up the pieces and recovering — they have to start their lives over again, almost completely from scratch. Fallen City steps into this setting and follows some of these characters, seeing where they are a few years after losing everything.
China is a country full of demographic scales that often seem too huge for Western eyes to comprehend. With more than a billion citizens, only India comes close to its population, and that’s nearly three times that of the third-place United States. Previous documentary films have done their best to capture the mind-boggling scope of the economic and social forces at play here. The work of filmmakers Lixin Fan and Qi Zhao are among those films. Fan directed and Zhao produced Last Train Home, and they’ve swapped roles for this movie. Both understand that in scenarios that involve so many people it’s more important than ever for a documentary to ground itself in personal stories.
Zhao and Fan find a few of those stories here. The Pengs faced the nightmare so many parents did during the earthquake: they lost their daughter, their only child thanks to the country’s one-child policy. Now they mull over whether to have another baby, even as they’re separated in the aftermath of the quake. Ms. Li is a middle-aged woman who lost everyone and everything close to her except her elderly mother, who is now a paraplegic. She openly states that caring for her mother is her only reason to live now, and as her mother’s last days inch away, she wonders what she’s going to do with herself.
Hong was 12 during the disaster and lost his father. His mother has since remarried, and both she and her new husband are leaning heavily on him to do well with his high school exams and make something more of himself. In Hong is the central question of the movie: is it possible or even practical to become something more than you were before tragedy struck?
The Chinese government pledged to build a completely new Beichuan, a process that unfolds before the audience over the course of the doc. Mountains of rubble shift to new development complexes. And yet, even when new buildings are in place, it never stops looking like a post-apocalyptic landscape. It reflects the grim, still-healing mindset of the characters. The way the film is shot, they frequently look to be alone wherever they are. They sit in empty rooms or on the tops of hills, surveying the landscape. The geographic and emotional isolation is all-encompassing. It’s also twisted in its beauty — in one scene, a tinkling piano plays as the camera pans over wreckage.
Produced in conjunction with ITVS and set to air on POV, Fallen City feels almost too big for its hour-long runtime. It’s a solemn, lovely-looking meditation on loss and grief. There’s more to say about the Sichuan earthquake and its aftermath, but this isn’t the first documentary about the event, nor will it be the last.
Fallen City debuts on PBS as part of the POV series tonight.