On May 12, 2008, a devastating earthquake struck the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing 69,000 people. Among those were some 6,000 children, most of them attending schools that collapsed. At the beginning of Fan Jian’s immersive, elliptical “After the Rain” (2021) black-and-white archival footage shows rescue workers frantically digging through the rubble, pulling out the rag doll-like bodies of children. “After 13 hours [of searching] I finally heard her answer me,” Sheng, the father of one of the victims, recalls. “‘Rain!’ [I shouted] ‘Your dad is coming for you!... I couldn’t save her. I’ve never forgiven myself.”
In the next scene Sheng and his wife, Mei, gather their daughter’s belongings and toss them over a bridge and into the river.
Because of the one-child policy enforced in China at the time, couples such as Sheng and Mei were without children after losing one in the disaster. The government, criticized by some for the high death toll, encouraged these parents to have another child and move on with their lives.
After difficulty conceiving, Sheng and Mei tried in vitro fertilization, paid for by the state. It failed, but then they conceived on their own. Both parents wanted another girl. When Chuan, a boy, was born, they were disappointed. Mei got over it, but Sheng grew bitter, in part perhaps because of his feelings of guilt for being unable to save Rain.
Meanwhile, Sheng and Mei have met husband and wife Ping and Ying, who also lost a daughter named Rain in the earthquake. The couples hit it off. “We both like drinking and being direct,” says Sheng. “I think we’ll be friends.” Ping and Ying already had another daughter, Ran-ran, whom, because of the state’s one child policy, they had sent to another family to be raised. Now Ran-ran is 5 and they have brought her back. “If I had a daughter,” says Sheng, “I’d be happy like you.”
Some years later, Sheng’s attitude toward Chuan hasn’t improved. He drinks heavily and verbally abuses Chuan, now 6. The boy ignores him and plays games on his phone or watches television. When Sheng refuses to take Chuan to an amusement park Mei says, “What kind of father are you?” Only when Chuan captures a double rainbow on his phone does his father begrudgingly compliment him. As for Ran-ran, now 11, she has grown tall and possesses a precocious aplomb. “I don’t understand her,” Ying says, “She doesn’t think like her sister did.” Unlike Sheng with Chuan, though, Ping accepts her daughter and bonds with her.
Both Ran-ran and Chuan have an aloof, changeling-like presence about them. To enhance this otherworldly quality, Fan intercuts sequences with images of the rushing river. Many scenes occur during downpours. The lives of his subjects pass with a fluid evanescence, the subtle interactions between them emerging with cryptic, telling details, like a kewpie doll Sheng repairs and gives to Chuan, or bonfires on the riverbank on New Year’s.
The Rains’ absence is like an inescapable shadow. Substituting one child for another does not alter the parents’ grief, even though the state thinks it should. Perhaps the bereaved need someone to blame for their loss. But blaming the government, which may have been culpable for the shoddy construction partly to blame for the schools’ being demolished in the earthquake, is forbidden. Ping comes closest to expressing this subversive notion when he says, “It wasn’t bad luck that killed our Rain. It was the fault of those who…”
He never completes the sentence.
Despite the unresolved tension, Fan suggests that the younger generation, the children who have replaced those who died, offer hope for the future despite the awkwardness and uncertainty of their present status. At the beginning and end of the film Chuan is seen swimming in the river, at home in his element.
“After the Rain” screens at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 as part of the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre. The director, Fan Jian, will appear for a Q&A via Skype video following the film. It is also available for streaming for DocYard passholders.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.