China. Ancient land of mystery. The place that lends us money and takes away our manufacturing jobs. And, apparently, you nutcases cannot eat food from there without getting hungry 30-minues later. What’s the matter with you people? Seriously. Anyways, it is also the land of Zhang Yimou.
You may know Zhang Yimou from his scaring the hell out of you during the Beijing Olympics. Or maybe you know him from the film Hero with Jet Li. Or maybe you know him for recently angering many fellow Chinese for having fathered seven children with multiple women without much suffering much consequence from Chinaâ€™s one-child policy. Before all that that, however, he was known to work with another Li: Gong Li. Also, before that, he was known to make films about China that were somewhat critical of the Chinese government, which resulted in many of the films being banned in China, at least temporarily. He was also sometimes accused of peddling Orientalism for Western audiences at the expense of Chinese audiences. I guess he made up for that after making Hero. But we are going to go back to one of his older movies, one that tells the story of one family trying to live in Communist China. The film is called, simply, To Live. Now, be warned; I spoil pretty much the first half of the film, but I try to avoid spoiling the rest of it.
Xu Fugui and and his wife Jiazhen are a well-to do couple with a young daughter and a baby boy on the way. Fugui, however, has a major gambling problem, and has been losing much of his money to shadow puppet troupe leader Longâ€™er. His aging father scolds him, even though he also had a reputation for gambling money away. Jiazhen is upset that he broke his promise to stop gambling if she got pregnant. He promises to stop gambling, but is back gambling the night afterwards. Jiazhen comes to the gambling hall and begs him to return home, but he shoos her away and continues gambling until he completely runs out of money and is forced to give up his house to Longâ€™er. Jiazhen, who had been waiting outside the gambling hall until he got out, tells him that she is taking their daughter Fengxia and going back to her parents. The next day, after Fuguiâ€™s father signs the family home over to Longâ€™er, he lashes out at Fugui and dies, apparently from a broken everything.
About a year later, Jiazhen returns with Fengxia and a baby boy, named Youqing. Fugui and his mother have been living in a much smaller place, paying the rent with what little they have left. Fugui has to go to Longâ€™er to borrow money to set up shop. Longâ€™er is loathe to lend money, but lends Fugui his box of shadow puppets and tells him to start a troupe. So Fugui and about five other guys travel around, doing shows for people while Jiazhen takes care of his mother and the children. One of these shows, however, is interrupted by troops, who force Fugui and his troupe to take part in the Chinese Civil war, a few months before the Communist victory.
Eventually, Fugui is able to return home, a humble participant of the war. His mother died when he was away and Fengxia was struck with an illness that left her hard of hearing and unable to speak. But, coincidentally enough, Fugui had returned the night before Longâ€™er, who had refused to turn over part of Fuguiâ€™s former house to the government, is scheduled to be executed. With his status as a Communist soldier made official on a fragile (and almost accidentally destroyed) piece of paper and his former status as a landlord long-since abandoned, Fuguiâ€™s luck and that of his family has changed for the better. As is already made clear, that luck is fragile and comes with a major price. In the decades to come, as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution make their mark upon China, the Xu family tries to maneuver its way through hard times and tragedy.
Okay, I have given away enough of the story already, so I will stop that now. I will try to touch upon the themes of the movie. The main one, of course, comes with the title. The Xu family is just trying to find a way to live through the struggles of living in China. The story is primarily about Fugui and Jiazhen sticking together throughout the rough patches in their marriage, and the rougher patches during Chinaâ€™s revolution, and the chaos that sweeps through the country during the early decades of the Peopleâ€™s Republic. If there is a moral to the movie, it is to value life, your own and others, even during the most hopeless of times. Through grief, there is humanity. In misery, there is hope of a better future. There is confusion. There is hatred. There is upheaval. There is misunderstanding. There is misery. There is suffering. There is brutal death. But no matter what, there is laughter, love, and life. And if simply living is all that you can do, then live.
The box of shadow puppets plays a big role in the story. The puppets save Fuguiâ€™s life, serve as a reminder of what was lost, and are a way of making do. The box and puppets are present during almost every important moment in his life. There is music that goes along with the puppet show andâ€¦it takes some getting used to. The singing is rough and the music can be a bit harsh on the ears. If you can tolerate the first few minutes, you might actually learn to enjoy it. I found that I even missed it once the music gets replaced with more modern-sounding Communist marching songs. It is ironic, and perhaps deliberately so, that while music saves Fugui multiple times during the time of the Communists, Fengxia loses her ability to speak around the time that the Communists take control of China. She may be all smiles, but she cannot speak her mind. But, like in many Asian movies, control of their own lives is something that these ordinary people never ever really have and can never really hope to have. They can hope only to live.
People have debated whether the movie is anti-Communist, anti-Mao, or neither. Indeed, the movie does not portray the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in a particularly positive light. That said, it does not go nearly as far as it could have if it were meant to be an indictment, specifically involving the Great Leap Forward. Tragedies that strike the Xu family can be blamed on Maoâ€™s policies, but there is just enough wiggle room to lay the blame on individuals. They continue to follow the Party even after everything that has happened to them and people whom they know. This is through a mixture of optimism that things will be okay, fear of what happens if they resist, and acceptance of the way things are. There are small acts of rebellion, but they are small, and mostly through petty subversion rather than confrontation or sabotage. There are many good people within the PRC leadership, sometimes misguided, but good nonetheless.
This movie was based on the novel of the same name. Apparently, the movie held back quite a bit in comparison to the book. Sometimes it did seem like the movie held back in certain areas, so it might be interesting to see how the book handled such major moments in modern Chinese history. Actually, when reading the synopsis for the book, I got scared of reading it, as it came across as more gallows humor than anything else. While I have no doubt that the book is good, and maybe even better than the movie, I get the impression that I would have emotionally checked out pretty soon if the movie had followed the book more closely. I might get around to reading the book at some point. For now, though, I have the movie. And, as it is, it is a really good one.
Next time: Please Teach Me English (South Korea: 2003, approx. 120 minutes)
Time after next: No One Killed Jessica (India: 2011, approx. 136 minutes)