The Rise of China's Own Spielberg

Chinese director Feng Xiaogang attends the premiere of the IMAX film 'Aftershock' China Photos-Getty Images

At 3:42 a.m. on July 28, 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the northern Chinese industrial city of Tangshan. Official reports put the death toll at 240,000, though many believe that the actual number of casualties was three times as high. In his new film, Aftershock, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang recreates the terror of those devastating minutes: low-rise brick buildings crumble; collapsing apartment blocks hurl bodies into the air; a government factory compound turns to rubble, trapping children under concrete slabs. Feng called on special-effects teams from South Korea and France, as well as New Zealand's Weta Workshop—of Lord of the Rings fame—to bring the horror to the big screen in brutal detail.

The film, which left preview audiences in tears, opened July 22 on more than 4,000 Chinese screens—an unprecedented number. It established an opening-day box-office record of 36.2 million renminbi ($5.3 million), narrowly displacing Avatar, the all-time winner in China. Experts predict it will become the first Chinese film to make more than $74 million domestically. Indeed, Aftershock may signal a new era of the blockbuster on the mainland, where box-office receipts doubled in the past year and hundreds of new cinemas opened. The film also goes a long way toward cementing Feng's reputation as the country's most important filmmaker.

As a director, Feng has become a strong draw on his own—an anomaly in Chinese entertainment, where movie stars usually make or break a film. Since his 1994 debut film, Gone Forever With My Love, he has made a dozen movies, each one shattering a record in China. Two years ago, Feng's romantic comedy If You Are the One broke the previous record by earning more than $51.7 million, making Feng the first Chinese filmmaker with a career gross of 1 billion RMB ($147.6 million). "People in China will go see a Feng Xiaogang film because it is by Feng Xiaogang," says University of Southern California Chinese-cinema expert Stanley Rosen. "He is a brand and has valuable name recognition. People know a film by Feng will be well written and moving."

That has earned Feng, 52, comparisons to Steven Spielberg, one of his favorite directors. The mention of Spielberg's name makes the chain-smoking Chinese director break into a wide grin, revealing crooked, nicotine-stained teeth. From under his signature baseball cap, Feng raises his head, shedding light on the uneven pigment of his face—a result of the skin disease vitiligo. "Spielberg's films have heart," says Feng. "People go see his movies because the stories make them feel something."

The same is true of Feng's. Albert Lee, CEO of Hong Kong's Emperor Motion Pictures and an Aftershock producer, believes Feng has a "unique ability to empathize with the mainstream Chinese audience." Early in his directing career, Feng won over audiences with his comedies Party A, Party B and Be There or Be Square—small ventures that explored the lives of ordinary folks from rapidly changing urban China. In the past few years, he has drawn in crowds with large-scale blockbuster dramas like the Hamlet-inspired Chinese period piece The Banquet, the war film The Assembly, and If You Are the One, about a newly wealthy Beijinger seeking love.

The theme of Feng's own life has been about beating the odds, a narrative much beloved in contemporary China. Raised in Beijing by his mother, a divorced nurse, Feng graduated from high school the same year that the Tangshan quake struck, and then joined the military, where he painted sets for an Army drama troupe. In the more liberal mid-1980s, he dabbled in script writing, making a name for himself in the TV industry in the early 1990s. His first big project was the 1992 U.S. shot soap opera Beijingers in New York, which won a loyal Chinese audience with its images of life abroad and its powerful moral message: expect nothing but unhappiness if you leave China for the decadent West.

Feng initially put plans for Aftershock, based on a memoir, on hold when the 2008 Sichuan quake struck, killing 87,000. He thought it imprudent to remind people about the tragedy. But as the relief efforts became a rallying point for Chinese unity and nationalism, he changed his mind. John Chong, CEO of the Media Asia Group, the film's financier, says: "This is why he's a legend. He told me he could tell a story about the triumph of humanity and family." The film follows the lives of one family, the Fangs—a widowed mother, her son who becomes a rich entrepreneur, and the daughter they believe died in Tangshan. The siblings both end up as rescue-effort volunteers in Sichuan and are accidentally reunited.

While the movie is powerful and well crafted, the producers are not banking on it finding a wide non-Chinese audience. Indeed, much of the drama comes from its subtle depiction of history. During one quake scene, a room's shaking walls dislodge a framed picture of Mao Zedong—the kind that every home and office once had on shrinelike display—which falls, to be lost in the debris.

In the past, Feng has struggled for success abroad. His 2001 comedy Big Shot's Funeral, a riff on China's rampant commercialism starring Hollywood actor Donald Sutherland, set a record on the mainland but was barely noticed in the U.S. In 2006 The Banquet, a lavish costume drama, again broke the box office at home but was mostly ignored abroad. "Feng once said that every director hopes for his film to have a wide audience," says James Wang Zhonglei, the president of Huayi Brothers, which made Aftershock. "[But] it was a burden to keep thinking if American or Hong Kong audiences could understand the film. So a few years ago he felt that he should just focus on the Chinese audience, and this is why he has become so successful at the box office."

But Feng is hopeful that his appeal will eventually spread. "The Chinese film industry is growing 30 to 40 percent a year," he says. "Maybe through these Chinese films the world can slowly understand China better. With my films you can see what life in China has been like these last 20 years." Expect him to continue telling Chinese stories that resonate; everyone else can go along for the ride, laughing and crying.