Film Review
by J. C. Adamson

To Live

Director: Zhang Yimou 
Cast: Ge You, Gong Li, Niu Ben, Guo Tao 

RatingMust see


To Live is based on a novel by Yu Hua. It is the story of one Chinese family, beginning as Mao Tse-tung is rising to power in the 1940s, and continuing well into the Cultural Revolution in the '60s.

Ge You plays Fugui, son of an aristocratic family. He's a puppeteer, and a gambler, and loses his family fortune at the dice tables. With that, he also loses his devoted and pregnant wife, Jiazhen, who tires of his lies, and leaves him, taking their other child as well. Fugui turns to the artistry of shadow-puppet theatre to support himself.

He is conscripted into the Nationalist Chinese Army, but defects to the Revolution in order to save himself. His puppets become his ticket back to what remains of his family.

The puppets are a shadow over most of the film. We know that the ancient arts become an anathema during the Cultural Revolution, and every puppet performance in the story adds to the tension. Fugui clings to the ornate puppets, seemingly believing that they always have the power to save him again. He makes choices that determine whether or not he will live. Fate makes other choices, that Fugui could never have anticipated.

To Live is replete with vivid and beautiful images. It reveals the pride and grandeur of the ancient Chinese culture, and shows how arbitrarily destructive the political revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, were to the true China. The film is rich in colors and textures that reveal its meaning. It is a moving statement by a gifted artist.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made several noteworthy films in the past half dozen years: Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Ju Dou among them. Western critics praise his masterful film technique, and cinematic honesty. The Chinese government is less enamored, and he's achieved limited distribution of his work in his own country. To Live seems to have pushed these trends a little further.

To Live won the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival, and Ge You won the best actor award. But the Chinese government clamped down even tighter on Zhang after accusing him of illegally distributing the movie. Apparently they have stopped production on his current project, and forbidden his involvement in any foreign efforts, or his involvement with the distribution of To Live. The nightmare in China has not yet faded into history. The simple title of this impassioned film looms very large over the landscape of today's events, and over Zhang Yimou's life and art.

It is difficult for Westerners to understand the complexities of the Chinese political landscape. To Live adds both to our emotional understanding, and to our factual knowledge. Its messages may be more vital to our future understanding than to our perceptions of the past or the present.

Whether taken as a tale of humanity, politics, or art, To Live is a film to savor. Zhang Yimou is as careful and courageous a film maker as any working today. He has troubled himself to learn the language of film from the great directors of all nations who have preceded him.

To Live is in Chinese, with well done English subtitles.


1996, J. C. Adamson

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