BEIJING - If there's one thing about Aftershock - a movie based on the 1976 earthquake that devastated Hebei province's Tangshan city, claiming more than 200,000 lives - almost every viewer talks about as he leaves the hall misty-eyed, it's the old man on the bike who appears toward the end of the film.
Standing in front of a monument erected in memory of the quake victims, the man gazes at the endless rows of names carved on the wall.
"I'll soon be back to see you again," he murmurs, before riding away from the frame.
The actor who plays that old man is 68-year-old Song Shoushu, a real-life survivor of the Tangshan earthquake, which swallowed his father, his younger sister and his 5-year-old son.
Although time gradually heals the wounds left behind by a catastrophe, the folks in Tangshan will forever commemorate their beloved ones, said Song, explaining why the Feng Xiaogang directed movie is so important to the residents of the prefecture-level city.
When Feng arrived in Tangshan in 2009 to shoot Aftershock, tens of thousands of residents came forward to play the role of extras.
Song was one of them. He frequented the film base with his 2-year-old granddaughter and eventually signed up both of them to play extras.
A few days later, he received a call for an audition, and both of them were selected.
Song and his granddaughter both shot minor roles before the quake strikes in the movie, but the scenes were later edited from the film due to time restraints.
Song Shoushu, a Tangshan earthquake survivor, who played a small role in the movie Aftershock, poses for a photograph with his 3- year-old granddaughter, who also played a small part in the movie, in his daughter’s Beijing home on July 30. [WANG LEI / FOR CHINA DAILY]
While filming the post-quake scenes, the extras were wrapped in mud and had to lie in the rain dead still.
"It seemed really tough. Thankfully, the assistant director spared my granddaughter and me, as we both were the youngest and the oldest respectively among the extras," Song said.
Song, who worked at the Tangshan Mining Machinery Plant before retirement, had learnt drama for two years in his teens. And it won him a role in the film.
Song met the director and the two chatted for about half an hour.
"I told the director that my daughter and son were trapped under a cement board, much like a scene in the film. My son died soon, or else, I'd have to make a tough choice quite like Li Yuanni (the mother in the film who can either choose to save her son or her daughter)," Song said.
Song's daughter-in-law finally rescued his daughter from the debris.
Song suffered some injuries in the disaster and was treated at a hospital away from Tangshan. When he returned four weeks later, still in bandages, there was a rush of post-quake reconstruction.
Like other survivors, Song built a shelter using materials from the ruins.
He recalled that not many people were seen weeping in the city - "the losses were just too many". In his neighborhood alone, 39 people had died.
"Which one would we cry for? We had to first attend to those who were still alive."
Song's minute-long scene took five hours to shoot.
He asked the director if he should shed tears while gazing at his son's name on the monument.
"He said, 'No. The Tangshan people often visit the monument but rarely weep. They feel the pain in their hearts.'"
Song added: "What you see on screen is my natural performance. I wore the same clothes that I own. All I wanted to do was show my true feelings."
What touched Song the most through the filming of the epic movie was the enthusiasm of the folks of Tangshan.
"Many of them even donated precious relics from the time of the quake when they learnt the crew was looking for authentic props," he said.
"We did everything for the movie. More importantly, we did it all to commemorate our loved ones, who we lost in the quake.
"I can never forget what the quake has done to us. But it's been so many years, and it's time to turn over a new page," Song said, adding that after shooting for the film the performer in him has awoken.
While some critics feel Feng's movie failed to capture the real hardships after the quake, Song disagrees.
"Films are works of art, and Feng adopted his own specific style to make the movie. What's reflected in the movie is basically true."