Criterion Prediction #55: To Live, by Alexander Miller
Title: To Live
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Gong Li, Ge You, Niu Ben, Jiang Wu, Beng Fei
Synopsis: In the lead-up to the second half of the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s, a wealthy but self-destructive Xu Fugui (Ge You) is a compulsive gambler and drinker. After a series of bad bets he loses his home and his once-prosperous family is left with close to nothing. Fugui is left with little but his forgiving and soon-to-be-expecting wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) with their young daughter Fengxia. Fukui then comes into an old chest of shadow puppets. He starts a modest living entertaining with his partner Chunsheng (Tao Guo). However, they’re suddenly detained by the Revolutionary Army during the Chinese Civil War. Fugui and his family undergo many hardships during a very tumultuous period in their nation’s history.
Critique: Zhang Yimou is a director who, in a sense, seems to get everything right. As broad as that may sound, his range is immense, and he’s proven himself capable of perceptive melodramas, bolstered by strong female protagonists (often realized by enigmatic muse Gong Li) such as Raise the Red Lantern to the characteristically stoic chivalry embodied by Jet Li with movies like Hero. Wherever he goes regarding theme or genre, Yimou seems attuned to frequencies that enable his lush, detailed direction to flourish. As a movie, I feel like To Live has had the misfortune of living in the shadow of the director’s own legacy, unfortunate because it may be his best effort.
A delicately-composed saga is technically tranquil, Yimou opts for static framing devices, low angles, medium shots and measured takes; we observe more than we participate in the proceedings. The lack of romantic emphasis on period is as refreshing as it is absorbing. There’s a very matter-of-fact presentation of history that anchors the inherent political gravitas. Yimou’s brand of humanism presents us with a saga of political strife and indecipherable cruelty of fate, and the seemingly elemental shifting of social mores.
To Live holds your attention for every narrative beat and for all the depth and heartache it’s remarkably unoppressive. This is a remarkable turn in narrative development because history is lensed through the characters’ lives and their experiences at the mercy of a country undergoing an upheaval of cultural transformation. To Live is a fluently political movie without revealing an agenda. The aesthetic nuance is brilliant in its ability to maintain a reserved objectivity through the lives of Fugui and Jiazhen.
This is an epic in that we feel so much through the films timeline, bookended by declarative title cards (IE “The Fifties”). This historical canvas is all in context to Fugui’s family, and the ebb and flow of their survival at the mercy or a mercurial society. Fugui’s turn from flaky, boozing gambler to an abiding citizen of the proletariat is an inverted reversal of fortune. In the forfeiture of his house and capital, Fugui embarks on a more personal path enlightenment by reinforcing his familial bonds, and in the years following sustain their survival in the rigid Communist reign.
Moments that occur in the third act feel as if they were plucked from a memoir or journal – Communist agents collecting cookware, and scrap from peoples homes for the military effort in retaking Taiwan. Fengxia’s suitor, a disabled leader Red Guard, arrives to fix their families roof and present a painted portrait of Chairman Mao on the wall – images like this are almost exclusive to Chinese Red Cinema, the hyperbolized notion of propaganda films notwithstanding this realization of daily life in To Live transcend that notion of fact and fiction all too well.
Zhang Yimou’s daring exploration is revealing and potent enough for the government to place a two-year ban on Gong Li and Zhang Yimou from engaging in any film production. Gong is powerful as always, illuminating every scene she is in, and You is revelatory as Fugui. His transformation is so profound that by the end he’s barely recognizable, not because of graying hair or makeup but his demeanor of someone who has experienced a torrent of heartache and turmoil. One could manufacture a modicum of socialist critiques in this story, and there are layers of societal observation to be made about the Chinese government, and Mao’s regime but the malleable context allows us to focus on the immediacy of the characters survival.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: To be frank, it was a contest between To Live and Yimou’s other masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, while the latter is an equally great film my online search turned up nothing in the form of Blu-ray for either movie, and the DVDs are dated at best. Since Raise the Red Lantern has (slightly) more visibility on DVD, it broke the tie in favor of To Live for this week’s article. For some bewildering reason, MGM’s “World Cinema” series edition of To Live runs at an average of forty-to-fifty dollars on Amazon. If those aren’t qualifiers for a Criterion release, I don’t know what is. As a fan of Chinese/Hong Kong cinema, it seems like North American distributors have fallen asleep on the wheel by neglecting a massive selection of movies that were coming from Hong Kong and mainland China throughout the late eighties and early nineties, and especially the years around the 1997 handover. During the VHS days, more savvy purveyors (remember that “international/foreign” section at the video store?) carried movies from Chen Kaige, Stanley Kwan, Fruit Chan, Zhuangzhuang Tian, but it seems like people have tuned them out. Sure, we hear plenty of talk about Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Zhang Yimou, but it’s mostly referring to their wuxia/action films. Before this turns into a rant, I’ll just say that someone needs to lead the charge for more distribution of Hong Kong Second Wave, and Chinese Fifth Wave movies, because right now, it seems like a sad affair.