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.