To Live (1994): Living and Enduring the Revolution

To Live Poster
      We continue Revolution Week with “To Live” a film so controversial that it was banned in mainland China for it’s portrayal of the Cultural Revolution and the director Zhang Yimou was banned from making movies for 2 years. Stories that confront a narrative that people tell themselves, in any country usually cause controversy in one way or another. It is for this reason the dream of revolution is ongoing. There are so many ways all countries can grow in freedom and justice, and an important part of that is being honest about past mistakes. Back in college we read this book and I was a big fan of it as Chinese History and history as a whole has always been an interest of mine.

“To Live” was directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Lu Wei, and produced by Fu-Sheng Chiu, Funhong Kow and Christophe Tseng and based off the book of the same name written by Yu Hua.

The story follows Xu Fugui (Ge You) a spoiled man who gambles away all his money and home. After his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) and daughter leave him and return he makes money using puppets that are loaned to him from the man who won his home. From earns money in this way until he is conscripted into the Nationalist Army and later Communist Army with his partner Chunsheng (Tao Guo) before returning once more to his family. From here the story unfolds as they live through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The Pros: The Setting – The setting is fascinating and one I studied during college. The story starts out in the 1940’s and we get to see what high society was like through Fugui and what it means to be poor too before the Revolution and Civil War and after as the next scenes are in the setting of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. These are handled subtlety too as we see how it affects the common people through Fugui and his relationship to different characters.

The characters – Like the book, the film has a great array of characters who are compelling in how they are expressed.

Long’er – Long’er is the man who cons Fugui out of his home and all his money. He’s a greedy guy but not all bad as he helps Fugui get back on his feet and lends him the puppets he used to make his living before his gambling success. He dies when the Cultural Revolution happens as Fugui’s home makes him a rich landowner which at the time, is a dangerous class in society to be. Dahong Ni does a wonderful job in the role.

Chunsheng – Chunsheng is Fugui’s business partner with the puppets and is a jokester who loves cars. He ends up joining the Liberation Army after they are picked up and put on some shows and he is later made District Chief during the The Great Leap Forward and accidentally kills Fugui’s young son. He lives with the guilt for the rest of his life and we don’t know if he loses his life as he is targeted as a Capitalist in a government purging. Jiazhen does forgive him though which is at the end all he wants. “All debts repaid.” Tao Guo does a great job.

Jiazhen – Jiazhen is the one who keeps Fugui responsible as she doesn’t care about wealth, just about their family. She leaves him since he doesn’t stop gambling, but comes back when demonstrates that he has truly changed. She is kind and aware of those around her and ways Fugui is not. For example she knows t their son was sticking up for his sister when she was being bullied and even when she’s sick she is fully their for their grandson. Li Gong does an amazing job!

Xu Fugui – I like this character more in the film than in the book. In the film he has hope for the future that is slowly broken as the The Great Leap Forward leads to his son accidentally getting killed and the Cultural Revolution leading to the death of his daughter as all Doctors are enemies since they are academics and not working class. He just wants to live and he does that really well as before he was obsessed with pleasure and drink but in the end just wants to be with his family. You Ge is great at playing both the cocky youth and the wise old man.

Great Leap Forward – The Great Leap Forward is shown to be great in many ways, but also having a cost. The people came together and industrialization did happen, the downside is the steel was bad and some people were worked to exhaustion like Fugui’s son.

Cultural Revolution – Fugui has to destroy the shadow puppets because they represent the Imperial Past, the Red Guards have power and turn on the intellectuals and teachers and everyone is afraid that they could be next. Of course if you’re connected to the Red Guards like Fugui is when a Red Guard marries his daughter, you get taken care of.

The Message – The message ends in one of hope, when Fugui tells his grandson, “And things will get better.” This might be true but what we see is that change for the sake of change isn’t always good. As many people have to be in it and abandoning the past or the elders can lead to lack of Doctors and loss of art. We see this in the mourning of the puppets, in the loss of Fugui’s children and what Fugui watches around him as even loyal Party members are arrested or targeted like Chunsheng or the man in charge of their area. Some positive can and do happen, but healthy change involves awareness of what worked before and including everyone in the change.

Okay/Good: The Cinematography – The cinematography used a lot of red and had some great color contrasts and long shots, but other times felt like a television movie in how it softened the scenes. For this reason I can’t make it a complete pro, but consider but better than okay.

Okay: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack isn’t all that unique and feels generic overall. This is a shame since a good soundtrack would have made this movie great.

Jiazhen and Fugui’s Children – The children are child actors so they could have been played by anyone as I wouldn’t call their performances unique. Their daughter is mute so communicates largely through facial expressions and their son is rebellious and defensive of his sister, both are accurate to the books but I don’t really consider their individual performances all that memorable.

I personally liked the book more because there were more details and it in my opinion it painted a much fuller picture. This film is still really good though. There are character arcs, we see how China changes during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and how this affects the common people. We see how the radical change of Revolution so often comes with suppressing ideas and creating enemies so that the people will be focused on an outward problem rather than the internal problems of society and corruption around them and we see that most people just want to live. This is a great story about one family doing just that, living and enduring so much struggle and loss in a country that went through the same.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10.

Doctor Zhivago (1965): The Price and Fallout of Revolution

Doctor Zhivago


This was a pretty amazing film, that made me very interested in reading the Novel of the same name that inspired it. We continue Revolution Week with “Doctor Zhivago” which covers era of the fall of the Tsar and the Russian Revolution and the purgings that happened after, as well as the cost of all of this on the common person.

“Doctor Zhivago” was directed by David Lean, written by Robert Bolt, produced by Carlo Ponti and based off the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak.

The story begins with Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) who is looking for the daughter of his half-brother Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) whose poetry has no become famous in the Soviet Union. Tonya (Rita Tushingham) does not believe she is the daughter of him since she never knew her father leading Yevgraf to retrace Yuri and her mother Lara’s (Julie Christie) story in the leadup to the Revolution and all that happened after.

The Pros: The Setting – The backdrop of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution is a fascinating time, especially since this film goes in depth into how no one was really safe after the Revolution and the cost of change and what it did to families.

The Cinematography – The Cinematography is gorgeous. There are lots of long shots, very reminscent of films like “Ben-Hur” or “Spartacus” it also gets personal too in small spaces and does some fascinating shots where it will be in the room and then go full shot through the open space in a foggy window. It truly is masterful.

The Soundtrack – Maurice Jarr did an amazing job on this soundtrack! Classic instruments like the Balalaika are incorporated in and it can big and epic as well as sad and personal. It feels large and captures the scale of the story really well.

The Characters – The characters in this are all rich, no one is static and everyone is changing as the nation changes from the Revolution. The one constant is suffering and how it shapes the characters and their relationships to one another.

Victor – Victor represents a lot of what is wrong with people, but especially among priveledged men. In the first scene we see him in he is creepily hitting on Lara and later rapes her on the way back. From here their relationship is one of her being afraid to tell her fiance and after a failed suicide attempt in which Yuri saves her life she decides she will use the gone Pavel gave her from a rally to kill Victor. The killing is not successful and we don’t see him for some time. When he returns he is in the Russian Government and offers to give Yuri and Lara a way to escape. They finally take him up on it but at this point Lara is no longer his slave and all attempts he has to act as if he owns her are shot down. Her trying to kill him was freeing herself of his toxic control. I hated this character and wish the gunshot had been successful in murdering him. Rod Steiger does a great job playing this unlikable man who only sees people in how they will benefit him and has no ideals beyond his own desires.

Pavel – Pavel is the idealist who becomes a “Hero” of the revolution after he gets a scar on the front in World War 1. He becomes a cold man and leaves Lara behind since he never forgave her for the affair with Victor (which shows that coldness that always existed from the beginning, she was raped multiple times by Victor). He meets Yuri at one point when Yuri and his wife Tonya are making their escape with their son and Alexander. They talk and he lets them go and we see how paranoid he has become and that his idealism has turned into tyranny. “The Russian cannot afford a private life. That era is over.” He is all about duty and the party and nothing else. The hero has now become the villain.

Alexander -Alexander is Yuri’s adopted father and a good man. He is there for Tonya the most as Yuri is very soon obsessed with the injustice around him and Lara who he served with at the front. He is a good man and has the most difficulty adapting to living poorly as he was once a very rich man before the Revolution. As Yuri becomes more involved with Lara it is really Alexander who is there to take care of Yuri and Tonya’s family and shows that he is a good guardian and Grandfather. Ralph Richardson is wonderful in the grandfather like role.

Tonya – Tonya is a very passive character who has great moments of power. For example, we learn she saved power in the shared apartment by turning it on only when Yuri was home because she knew how much he liked it. We also see it in how she tries reaching out to him, even ifs he gets nothing in turn. She is a good mother and even respects Lara, who she learns was Yuri’s mistress. She never sees Yuri again as her, Alexander and Yuri’s son escape to France. Geraldine Chapline is fantastic.

Lara – Lara is the tragic character for much of this story. Whether it’s her husband leaving her after finding out about the affair and never returning back as he becomes the “Hero” of the revolution and even that coming back to bite her when the Party turns against him and her association with him being dangerous…her rapist still being alive and still having power even until the end, though at that point she had boundaries he could not cross thankfully and of course losing Yuri after he is picked up by some Red Guards to hunt for Whites and rebels in the country. She is able to care for their daughter though and is one of the strongest characters in the film…from living alone, to trying to kill Victor and living in exile raising their daughter. She is extremely well rounded and has a good heart as seen by her devotion to the wounded when her and Yuri were serving at the front as Doctor and Nurse. Julie Christie gives a lot of depth to this role.

Yuri Zhivago – Yuri is the Doctor Zhivago of the title and is a very flawed but overall good person. He was raised by Alexander as he lost his family and saves Lara’s life when she attempts suicide. He isn’t the idealist, he just wants to live and this causes conflict as he still wants to be treated with dignity. This leads to trouble when he returns from the front and the party begins noting his attitude as a problem. His brother Yevgraf convinces him to run away which builds his relationship with Alexander and Tonya as well as their son, but once he reconnects with Lara that stops as his second life takes control until he is kidnapped and conscripted to be a doctor the Reds. He eventually escapes and meets Lara again and after helping her escape decides to stay in Russia. He eventually dies when he thinks he sees her as his heart was weak after all it had been through. He has a legacy though as people turn up from all over to honor him as his poetry had grown famous. Omar Sharif does a wonderful job.

Yevgraf Zhivago – Alec Guinness is a truly amazing actor. In this he plays a Bolshevik who is sent to the front to ferment Revolution. He succeeds and is a Secret Policeman and later a General. In each of these roles he knows he does wrong things that hurt others but his connection to his brother leads to him doing good. We see this when he helps Yuri and his family escape from Moscow and later when he finds Lara and Yuri’s daughter. He is at his core a good man and is uncomfortable about things he’s done and that his brother’s work was outlawed for a time…as he sympathized with the poetry and how personal it was.

The Revolution – We see the hope of revolution and the turning point for some characters. When Pavel is beaten he decides that peaceful revolutions will be no more…Sadly this is taken to the fullest degree as his government becomes so oppressive that in the end he becomes a refugee in them. This captures how the ideals of revolution can get lost when new power structures are formed and how those can be abused by any group.

The Message – There are a few messages in this film. The strongest is that Revolution may not always have a good end. Of course things weren’t great under the Tsar, that is obvious, but things aren’t great under the party either. This film captures the loss and price of it and how selfish powerful men like Victor are the ones most likely to live no matter how things change. In counter to that though, good people can change others…as Yuri changed his brother and made him a better person, and it’s implied his poetry changed the nation in small ways making it more open.

Okay: Length – This film is a bit long at times. I think the length was needed but I still felt the length of the production and story.

What Happens in the Present? – What is going on in the present isn’t fully known. All we know is Yuri’s poetry can now be read by all Russians and that the government is more open than it was before…but we only hear about it. We never see it fully but we know because we see it that the trials of the present are much easier than the trials of the past.

This was a great movie and one I would consider a classic. It gives the Russian Revolution justice because it shows us flawed characters who are fully explored in a nation that goes through radical changes. We see people at their most desperate but also moments of tenderness and love. I really want to read the novel now as I was very impressed by this film. If you are looking for a great drama, romance based in history…take a look at this film. I sincerely doubt you will be disappointed. Just know that it is around 3 1/2 hours long, so be prepared. There is a reason that the film has an intermission during it.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10.

Brazil (1985): A Brilliant Surrealist Dystopian Satire of Bureaucracy

Brazil Poster

We continue Revolution Week with a film that has after today become a favorite…”Brazil.” Terry Gilliam is truly a master of surrealism and satire as well as creating films with so many intricacies and layers. It is easy to relate this film to revolution because it represents everything being rebelled against. It is a static world but the characters are not static. There is a fight change things and characters change as they are put through trials both figurative and real.

This was my second time seeing the film. First time I just didn’t get it. It was wierd, tonally inconsistent and too long I felt like. After a second time seeing it, since last time I saw it was in college, my views have changed. Some of those issues still stand but there are a hell of a lot more ways how it is brilliant and works.

The film was directed by Terry Gilliam who also was one of the writers. The other writers of the screenplay were Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. The film was produced by Arnon Milchan.

The premise is that Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is a low level government employee fantasizing about being free in fantasy dream who is pulled into events that soon change him though as he has to rectify an error that occurred that led to the government executing an innocent man. From here the story unfolds as the revolutionary Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) (the man supposed to have been killed) uses his home as a base and Buttle’s neighbor Jill Layton (Kim Greist) seeks justice for what the government did.

The Pros: The World – The World is a surrealist representation of our own. With old ladies getting face lifts, government bureaucracy where papers rain down from the walls and a faceless police force breaking into homes…all over a consumer driven society obsessed with wealth. It is a brilliant exaggeration of the problems in our own and satire at it’s finest.

The Government – The government in this world cares more about the “Right way” to do things and the documents to sign and agencies to visit rather than people. We see this in how Jill is unable to get the right documents to get money for the Buttles or to hold anyone accountable. The government is all about personal connections too, since Sam’s Mom knows someone higher up Sam is able to get the promotion into Information Retrieval which helps him to save Jill when he learns Information Retrieval via his “friend” Jack is targeting all those connected to the government mistake.

The Rebels – Tuttle is our greatest glimpse of the rebels and they like society are mad. They do small things and also big things like setting off bombs in public places. They are also human too, as witnessed by Tuttle being one of the few people who actually treats Sam like a human being. They do have issues though, all the attacks we see happen in public places and is largely innocents killed, which is probably why the government is still in power. In order to have a successful revolution you have to win the heart of enough of the people.

Jack – Jack is the torturer and assassin for the government and was the one who killed Buttle and is now killing everyone attached to him. Everyone knows what he does too as his daughter is in the room with him where he had a doctor’s outfit covered in blood. He is a family man and does try and protect people he must care about to some degree, but he is also a cog and disconnects himself by wearing a baby mask when he tortures people and forcing them to not see him as a person.

Harry Tuttle – Harry is the revolutionary and the one who saves Sam at one point. To Sam he represents freedom and letting go of all he was attached to that was crushing him in his work (“Fight Club” style) but is also a real human being as we see him interact with people beyond Sam. He connects to those who help him but clearly doesn’t care about the masses. He is selfish in that he is mostly looking after himself, even if he is fighting the system. De Niro is fantastic.

Jill Layton – Jill is the activist and goes through all levels of government to try and get justice for Buttle. She doesn’t succeed but ends up finding an ally in Sam who she at first hates but later when she learns he was right about the injustice of the government joins with him as they are both on the run. She is killed when Sam is captured sadly. Kim Greist does a good job.

Sam Lowry – This is the best role I’ve seen Jonathan Price in. He plays the government worker just trying to live day to day by living in a fantasy half the time, to the fugitive and also the rebel to some degree as he holds out against in the torture in his mind and doesn’t give in or reveal Buttle to Jack and the government. The price is he goes mad and lives in his fantasy, which gives him a very bittersweet end…considering this could have gone “1984” and turned him into someone who is all about the government and right way to do things…as he was at the beginning of the film.

The Dream – There are two dreams. The dream where Sam is saving Jill from an enemy, in one it’s a Giant Samurai…and one where he is rescued by Tuttle who he destroys the government building with. He later ends up at his Mom’s friend’s funeral, is hunted by the government and watches Tuttle be devoured by government documents before he is rescued by Jill. This is his ending after his mind breaks.

The Message – The message is in the satire. Obsessing over things like wealth, body and items make it easy for a corrupt, inept and controlling system to take control. This makes sense as people in a state of complacency don’t care. The message of the film is to wake up and do something that matters. Try to change things and notice the problems in the systems around you. It is a powerful and great message.

Okay: The Cogs of the Machine – Most of the government employees don’t feel like real people. Besides Jack, none of them felt fully fleshed out. They were just that, cogs which may have been the point but it’s why I can’t put them as a pro.

The Everyday People – The everyday people are the same way. We see glimpses of connections and life, such as the family celebrating Christmas together before the government arrives to arrest the father…but beyond that we don’t really get to know the people beyond Jill and Harry.

The Cons: Confusion – The dream sequence at the end was a bit confusing until the reveal, and there were parts in the middle that were the same way too. This limited the power of the message in my opinion.

Too Long at Times – There were times the film dragged…for example some of the dream sequences that Sam has with enemies like the Giant Samurai and others were cool, but they really did go on for too long.

This isn’t my favorite Terry Gililam film, that is still “The Fisher King,” but this one is truly amazing and a well deserved Cult Classic. It satirizes problems relevant to our time and does a call to action in the process, which is really the basis for the act of revolt and revolution. Revolutions are about facing a problem and through struggle seeking to change it. This movie is how one person failed at that and how sometimes the means can be truly bad as well. Suffice to say, I recommend this film.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great, even with the problems I have with it.

Battleship Potemkin (1925): The Russian Revolution Idealized

Battleship Potemkin


“The Battleship Potemkin” is a silent propaganda film about the Russian Revolution against the Tsar. It is based around the events of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 on the ship but is turned into a metaphor to represent the underclass versus the privileged class of the revolution. It is great? I don’t think so, but it isn’t bad either. I’ll explain what I mean when we get down into the assessment.

The film was directed by S.M. Eisenstein, written by N.F. Agadzhanova-Shutko, Sergei Einstein, Nikolai Aseyev and Sergei Tretyakov and produced by Jacob Bliokh.

The premise is the people are angry about the corrupt Tsarist regime and the sailors on the Potemkin are feeling the same way. After the Admiral’s doctor says the meat does not have worms in it (when it clearly does) it sparks a mutiny which sets things in motion against the Tsar and his regime.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The music for “The Battleship Potemkin” is stunning. It is classical and is good at capturing the emotions behind certain events, such as the Massacre at Odessa or the mourning of the rebel leader Vakulinchuk. It was the music that kept me watching more than anything else. Edmund Meisel and Vladimir Heifetz did a wonderful job.

Cinematography – The cinematography is really good, especially for the time period. The Massacre at Odessa is shot using a long shot and truly captures the loss of life and the tragedy of the event.

Massacre at Odessa – In Odessa the Tsar arrives with his troops and begins slaughtering the people, who at this time have killed some of the Jews (the fact that the film doesn’t show this as wrong is a major point against it, screw Anti-Semitism). Ending with a mother holding her child that was slaughtered by the troops who is slaughtered in turn. The old women begging for the fighting to stop are also slaughtered by the troops leading the Battleship Potemkin to fire on the palace.

One Against All – This is a great scene. In a silent film without any color, the flag on the ship still shows itself red symbolizing the struggle and cost to be free. There is a showdown between the Potemkin and the Tsars fleet but due to the sailors on the other vessels the ships change sides ending the standoff (which has great building tension) with victory.

The Message – If those without power stand together, you will be victorious. There will also be much sacrifice for it to happen in the first place, but one person’s sacrifice can lead thousands to action (the death of the Revolutionary). These were the major themes which capture the idea of revolution and we how we as a society idealize it, really well.

Okay: The Mutiny – The mutiny is chaotic and there is some setup at least. From the Doctor saying the wormy meat is good to eat, from the Admiral calling for those who did not eat the meat to be killed and of course the fight itself. The problem is we don’t really know any of the characters. Everyone is ideas, which in my opinion doesn’t make good propaganda. Shouldn’t I care about the characters? If I don’t know them as people it is kind of hard too. I see their struggles but I have no idea what they care about since what they want in regards to revolution is always defined in the most general and vague sense. Still good action keeps it from being a con, but the events on the ship are some of the weakest parts.

The Cons: Mourning the Martyr – This scene dragged on for a really long time and I had no idea why so many random people cared about him. We never saw him interact with them so there was no reason for it. He had a nice mustache I guess? When the mutiny occurred on the ship there were a few people doing action. It never appeared that he was all that in charge. Which maybe is a point too, you become greater than your role as people turn you into more than you were…the Science of Martyrdom.

Anti-Semitism – One of the first things that happens is the villagers turn on the Jews. This is hateful, makes no sense and the one Jewish character we see is presented as a suited, arrogant businessman. What the hell? If this scene had been presented as the mob being imperfect and the act being wrong (hell even a sign of things to come with the Revolution’s success) it’d have a point beyond just anti-semitism…but it doesn’t and it really hurts the film. It’s like black-face in the old Hollywood films. Sometimes peoples hatred and ignorance is just disgusting.

This is very clearly a propaganda film, which hurts the quality of the film since the characters are just ideas and not people, the anti-semitism really brings the film down since it shows from the beginning how stupid the mob and can be and since this is propaganda, the mob is in the right…and no matter how good the soundtrack, Massacre at Odessa and and cinematography are, it is not enough to save this film.

Final Score: 6 / 10. It’s a piece of history with some good visuals and music, but not much else beyond the idea of what Revolution is, not the reality.

First Revolution Week


This week we’re going to change themes and cover revolution. Revolution is a radical change that happens within a state, culture, nation or society and more often than not involve great sacrifice.

Revolution also, is not always good, though is almost always based in an idealism of wanting to change things for the better. This is one thing all revolutions have in common – they are answering some lack of power a group feels and doing something about it. Doing something about it, most often means violence but that is not always the case. Many revolutions come from a place of civil disobedience and peaceful protests that through the virtue the act reveal the vice and corruption of their enemies or the idea they are fighting against.

For this week, starting today, we are going to cover the films “Battleship Potemkin,” “Brazil,” “Doctor Zhivago.” and “To Live.” In future Revolution Weeks we’ll be covering other films and other types of revolutions.

So without further ado, to to life, liberty and art!