To Live (China, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"I believe that for a long time now Chinese films have been too abstract, conceptual, gimmicky. They don't relate at all to the lives of ordinary Chinese people. I'm certain that most audiences will like this film. We haven't gone overboard on the tragic elements, but rather have focused on the minute, amusing details in the life of a nobody. There are tears and laughter, one following the other in a gentle rhythm like the breath of a bellows."
- Zhang Yimou, director of To Live

To Live, Zhang Yimou's sixth feature, explores territory that is rapidly becoming familiar to those who view the works of China's so-called "Fifth Generation" film makers. The events of the middle decades of the twentieth century, including the Communist Civil War, the "Great Leap Forward", and the Cultural Revolution, represent fertile ground for grand stories of mingled tragedy and triumph. However, this marvelously-textured movie, which is by turns funny and touching,, takes a different approach from pictures like The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine. Instead of viewing the cultural changes on an epic scale, To Live gives a far more intimate, and affecting, perspective.

Fugui (Ge You), Jiazhen (Gong Li), and their two children are normal, hard-working Chinese citizens caught up in the chaotic changes transforming their country. Unlike many of their counterparts in other, similarly-themed films, they are not accused of acting against Mao Tse-tung's Red government, but their faithfulness to the new order doesn't keep tragedy from touching their lives. As one of the film's explanatory capsules states, few families in China were not affected by the Cultural Revolution.

Although To Live has been banned in its country of origin because of a supposed negative portrayal of certain pro-Maoist historical events, Zhang's presentation of three turbulent decades of life in China seems reasonably balanced. Other films (most notably Farewell My Concubine) have more openly attacked the Communist Revolution and its aftermath.

The characters are powerfully developed and realized, representing some of the most "real" men and women to populate any of 1994's films. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, we follow Fugui's family through good times and bad. Zhang's skill is such that we become less a detached observer and more a passive participant. Gong and Ge (both of whom appeared in Farewell My Concubine), who imbue Fugui and Jiazhen with life and humanity, are perfect choices for the central characters.

Few films approach the level of honesty reached by To Live. This is a story whose underlying central theme is expressed in the title: through all the struggles, hardships, and moments of rare magic and joy, the characters continue their lives. As Jiazhen points out, no matter how bleak circumstances appear, the only choice is to go on.

With To Live added to an impressive list of credits that already includes Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang has cemented his reputation as one of today's premier directors. It is an accolade not lightly accorded, but the film maker has earned it through his telling of rare stories brimming with humanity and unforced drama.

To Live (China, 1993)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Ge You, Gong Li, Niu Ben, Guo Tao, Jiang Wu, Liu Tian Chi, Zhang Lu
Screenplay: Yu Hua and Lu Wei based on the novel by Yu Hua
Cinematography: Lu Yue
Music: Zhao Jiping
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1994
Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: