DVD To Live
Region 1/import title.
Charting the lives of an ordinary family during the tumultuous years of Revolutionary China, Zhang Yimou’s To Live is an intimate fable of the trials of war and revolution, told from the perspective of normal people living unremarkable lives.
Fugui (Ge You) is a gambler, the son of a wealthy man living a life of dice and socialising. However, his lifestyle soon catches up to him, and he loses his family mansion and livelihood. This forces him to resort to the only skill he has: performing with a shadow puppet troupe. It is during a performance that he is drafted into the Kuomintang army, separating him from his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li) and young family.
During his tour of duty, he is captured by a division of the Communist army, which enlists him as the entertainment to boost company morale. Upon his return home, he is reunited with his family and they begin life as ordinary townspeople during the turbulent years of China’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These crucial eras of China’s 20th century history are examined through the effects and changes they elicit in this small family…
To Live is a seminal example of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers; directors educated in Western and Soviet cinematic traditions and freed from the restrictive censorship that plagued the cinema during the Cultural Revolution. The early-90s proved immensely important for mainland Chinese cinema, with films such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Tian Zhuanzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993) making notable waves in the international film community, and showcasing China’s new ability for expressing and exorcising the ghosts of its troubled past. Zhang, aware of his government’s disdain of critical explorations of China’s past, submitted the film (based on Yu Hua’s novel of the same name) directly to Cannes in order to secure an international audience. He was banned from filmmaking in the country for two years for his efforts.
This film is also an important example of Zhang’s early cinematic style and approach. Much removed from his later, internationally minded efforts such as Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004), To Live is an intimate family portrait, beautifully framed by the dramatic historical moments that surround it. It is a film of immense delicacy and humanism, always striving to depict the human cost of political turmoil. In Fugui and Jiazhen, he finds a universally endearing couple, easily standing for the non-politicised masses most affected by the sweeping changes of the time. The approach taken to these social changes is also marked by a deep respect for the true effects they had; both the negatives and the positives of Mao’s social policies are addressed and, as such, the film does not ask its viewer to politicise themself. Despite its setting and period, this is a film primarily about its characters, and, as such, it becomes a far more effective and involving portrayal of Revolutionary China.
Both Ge You and Gong Li give masterful performances as the long-suffering husband and wife at the centre of everything. They allow both the joys and tragedies of life to shine through unfiltered; emphasising the way life’s smallest moments can sometimes seem to eclipse all others. Ge, especially, carries the film with a poignancy that often approaches childlike innocence, earning his Best Actor Award at Cannes 1994 with a charming performance aimed directly at the hearts of the audience. The children of the family are played by bright-eyed youngsters who have tangible chemistry with the rest of the cast, and are able to carry several moments by themselves.
Technically, Zhang’s cinematic education and training shines through.
Perhaps herein lies the main issue some may have with the film, being its often overt sentimentality. Whilst in the context of Chinese cinema, the film’s melodrama is relatively restrained; to Western audiences the film can seem on the nose and painted with a rather heavy brush. Film scholar Wendy Larson remarks on how the film uses traditional Chinese narrative conventions such as coincidence and dualism which, while reflective of the culture the film comes from, can be easily taken for lazy narrative progression. However, it is important to remember that Taoist ideas of yin and yang are ingrained into all of Chinese storytelling, and fortune and misfortune are both interchangeable and random. The joys of the film often lead to later sadness, and events such as the loss of Fugui’s family estate are given a fortuitous pay-off later on in the film. To Live is very much concerned with the interconnectedness of all things, and how even the smallest actions can have momentous consequences.
Technically, Zhang’s cinematic education and training shines through, lending a deft and assured control over the film’s direction and pace. The film is shot through with rich, lively cinematography from Lü Yue, used to especially great effect both during the sweeping shots of charging infantry during the war sequences and moments of familial stillness and quiet both amidst domestic settings and communal space.
The music in the film is shared between the traditional sounds of the shadow puppet theatre and the grandiose score by Zhao Jiping, which often, unfortunately, only serves to unnecessarily heighten the melodrama. When it is not concerned with trying to coax out a few errant tears, however, Jiping’s score is frequently a thing of considerable beauty.
To Live is, ultimately, a rewarding cinematic experience for those willing to look past its often heavy-handed approach to tragedy and loss. By inviting the viewer to become a member of this family, the joys and the sadness they experience become a cathartic emotional experience. These characters also ably serve to represent all of China, and Zhang Yimou’s ambitious tale of the Revolution is one of the finer historical films dealing with this period.
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