Since the earliest days of feature-length epics a century ago, filmmakers have recognised the box office allure of catastrophes. Italy paved the way with the volcanic pyrotechnics of The Last Days of Pompeii (1913), and America's Cecil B. De Mille achieved worldwide accolades for the divine scourges in both silent and sound versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956). Asian cinema joined the ranks with Japan's Godzilla (1954), a creature symbolic of the perils of the atomic age, and South Korea flexed its cataclysmic movie muscles last year with Haeundae. China finally enters the club with Feng Xiaogang's Aftershock, the first Chinese-language disaster picture to compete with its overseas rivals on both budgetary and technical levels. Not that the mainland's celluloid history is devoid of catastrophic phenomena. United Photoplay Service (known as Lianhua in Chinese), one of Shanghai's most prestigious silent studios, incorporated a climactic eruption into Loving Blood of the Volcano (1932), even though the effects seem amusingly crude even by 1930s standards and their underlying rationale less thrill-inciting than allegorical. On a similar note, deficiencies in the realms of budget and technique appear to be the chief motivating elements behind the largely metaphoric status of mid-20th-century mainland and Hong Kong screen disasters. The storms pivotal to such Cantonese sagas as In the Face of Demolition (1953), Thunderstorm (1957) and Typhoon Signal No10 (1959) are devices whose nature is more literarily suggestive than graphically conjured up for the cameras. Rather, the era's most realistic semblance of a destructive Hong Kong landslide can be found in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), a Hollywood production shot on location in the crown colony. Across the border, then in the midst of a three-year famine, calamitous scenarios were assiduously avoided. Hong Kong studios were under no such strictures. Director Patrick Lung Kong presented a unique take on a fictional epidemic sweeping through the city in Yesterday Today Tomorrow (1970), set in a quarantined camp in what is now Tsim Sha Tsui East. He also turned his sights on a nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima 28 (1974), although again the approach was the antithesis of the spectacle one associated with the genre. Few local filmmakers have since taken on such topics, with exceptions such as Herman Yau Lai-to's ultra-exploitative Africa-lensed viral horror Ebola Syndrome (1996) and post-Sars dramas such as City of Sars (2003) and The Miracle Box (2004). As with Lung's earlier works, they possess a fiscal modesty that, while not reflecting on the validity of their content or lack thereof, precludes their consideration as grandiose cinematic cataclysms. 'Modest' is hardly a term associated with the works of Johnnie To Kei-fung, and so it was with his firefighting extravaganza Lifeline (1997), pre-handover Hong Kong cinema's closest approximation of a big catastrophe film. Still, coming so soon after Ron Howard's more dazzling Backdraft (1991), it was perceived as more Hollywood wannabe than epic disaster. The past decade has seen advances in computer-generated imagery, giving producers with relatively meagre financial resources the ability to bring forth the necessary 'wow' factor. Hence, an upsurge of works based on post-apocalyptic visions, ranging from pictures such as the Pang Brothers' Re-cycle (2006), winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for best visual effects, to direct-to-DVD efforts such as Fate (2008). As movie fans can attest, the aforementioned don't even come close to the scope and ambition of Aftershock, its 135 million yuan (HK$154.7 million) budget and team of Chinese and foreign special effects masters utilising the latest technology to recreate the Tangshan tremors - the 1976 tragedy that remains the mainland's most lethal earthquake - for Imax screens. It's about time.