To Live (Huo zhe)
China/Hong Kong (1994) Dir. Zhang Yimou
Political regimes will always hurt someone. That is a fact. The poor will always be at the bottom of the heap under a plutocracy, the unskilled and undereducated suppressed by a meritocracy, and Communism tends to screw everyone except for those at the very top. Unfortunately, anarchy and autonomy isn’t the answer either, so all we can do is make the best of what we have.
Spanning three decades, we follow Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) as they survive the ever-changing political landscape of China. Beginning in the 1940s, Fugui is a compulsive gambler but not a very good one, having incurred a number of sizeable debts through is losses. His wealthy father disapproves of Fugui’s lifestyle whilst pregnant Jiazhen is fed up with being left to raise their daughter Fengxia alone.
Things get worse when Fugui’s debts are so high he ends up losing the family home to meet the payments, causing Jiazhen to walk out on Fugui, taking Fengxia with her. A year later, Jiazhen returns with Fengxia and a son, Youqing, finding Fugui now living with his ailing mother. Fugui now runs a puppet show and vows to be a better father and husband, until he is conscripted to fight in the Chinese Civil War.
Based on the novel by Yu Hua, To Live is the film that put Zhang Yimou on the map as a cinematic force to be reckoned with on the international front, not without a little irony. The film was banned by Chinese censors for what they perceived as negative portrayals of Communist Party policies, essentially proving the point by quashing the film’s release, yet the one thing this film isn’t is directly confrontational.
As mentioned earlier, this is a multi-decade story, with the 40s timeline just the start of a long and eventful journey for Fugui and Jiazhen which takes in love, marriage, birth, death, revenge, war, politics, and tragedy. By the end of the film, we are left in awe at how much this one family suffers yet they keep on ticking, always taking a positive approach to what tomorrow may bring.
Fugui undergoes the biggest change and so he should, being a total arse in the first act which his stint in the army knocked out of him, though he was just a lowly foot soldier for the Republic of China forces until he was captured by the People’s Liberation Army. After being allowed home, Fugui discovers a fever has left Fengxia deaf and mute whilst Youqing (Fei Deng) is a cheeky scamp like his father but protective of is elder sister.
Come the 1950s and Communism is the new order in China, and the gentry are now targets of the party, including the man who now owns Fugui’s old home, who was shot for not sharing his wealth with the People’s Government. Now a commoner himself, Fugui realises his lucky escape had he not lost the house, but he has little left when each household is forced to donate metal to make bullets to aid the retaking of Taiwan.
With the 50s ending in tragedy for the family, the 60’s seem a bit brighter but not before the Cultural Revolution puts an end to Fugui’s business as his puppets shows are seen as counter-revolutionary. Again, no rants of objection from Comrade Fugui, just compliance and acceptance of the ruling like a good citizen, allowing the audience to roll their eyes in his place.
It is the wedding of Fengxia (Liu Tianchi) to crippled Wan Erxi (Jiang Wu), a leader of the local red guards that brings some light to their now grey and conformist world, though the actual ceremony is more a celebration of Chairman Mao than their union. Over here, women where white dresses – in 60s Communist China Fengxia wears her standard issue khaki party uniform for her nuptials.
Unfortunately, more tragedy is to come in what is a wonderfully acerbic pot shot at the folly and hubris of the “out with old, in with the new” policy of the Party, which Yimou manages to execute like a comedic farce, adding mishap after mishap. Yet he is fully conscious of the heartbreak it creates and, to the frustration of the audience, in holding back on using it as an overdue breaking point for the characters’ indoctrinated loyalty to the party.
Yimou and Hua are both careful in making this about life under governing regimes and not taking a pro or anti stance. It paints the attitudes of the ordinary people under Mao’s rule as content with life, eschewing high drama like a rebellious uprising to create balance. But, as outlined above it is full of allegorical barbs smartly disguised as fate which presumably the censors saw through in deciding to ban the film.
Viewing this as a straight drama, it is a moving and captivating experience, that peaks and troughs in natural rhythms, and presented as a case of every action has an opposite reaction. If the socio-political subtext is not immediately evident or intrusive, it is down to the characters coming across as real and relatable, at least in the post-war years, as grassroots members of society speak to most of us on a direct level anyway.
Performances across the board are fantastic, but that is to be expected with Gong Li and Ge You leading the charge. Both are tasked with charting their characters’ growth and changes over the years, aging physically and maturing as people. Fugui’s turnaround in You’s hands is exponential but masterfully essayed, just as Li reaching beyond her then 29 years to make Jiazhen’s journey to matriarchy a graceful one is quietly mesmeric.
Topped off with exemplary period reconstructions captured through the complimentary photography and focused direction from Yimou, To Live is more than a political critique; it is a veritable textbook history lesson of Chinese social reforms thus is vital viewing for film fans and historian alike.