Saturday, June 25, 2016

To Live (1994)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Lu Wei, Yu Hua
DP: Lü Yue
Editor: Du Yuan
Score: Zhao Jiping
Producer: Fu-Sheng Chiu, Funhong Kow, Christophe Tseng
Starring: Gong Li, Ge You, Jiang Wu, Lu Zhang, Cong Xiao, Liu Tianchi, Guo Tao, Fei Deng, Ni Dahong
Distribution: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Length: 2 hrs. 12 min.

At the beginning of To Live, a man named Xu Fugui gambles away his family's home, leaving him and his pregnant wife Jiazhen destitute. To provide for his family, he works with a shadow puppet troupe and ends up working for both sides of the Chinese Civil War as a laborer and performer. Eventually, the man who won his property, Long'er, is arrested and executed for refusing to comply with the revolutionary government, while Fugui's lack of wealth and military service keep him from suspicion.

You could see this as an ironic twist of fate, but that alone doesn't account for the bigger picture. To see how easily Fugui could have met the same end as Long'er is to see how the revolutionaries' ignorance of the arbitrariness and the potential consequences of their own violence. The Xu family remains more or less spared from this even as people around them are directly oppressed or complicit in oppression; however, aside from Fugui's initial gambling problem, the various tragic accidents that befall them have factors rooted in the failures of the revolutionaries as much as they have factors rooted in the caprices of life.

The characters are constantly navigating through complex surroundings, shot through obstructions, or set against detailed backdrops. While To Live doesn't use symmetry to the same oppressive effect that some of the director's other films do, it still often presents its characters in a restrictive relationship with their surroundings, especially in the scenes taking place after Fugui's return from the military: then, Mao Zedong's face is visible in almost every shot, sometimes even in more places than one. Nevertheless, it lets privately shared moments take place in short focus or in less cluttered locations. Also, the camera sometimes breaks from the specific, sympathetic eye it takes on for most of the film. Then, we instead get crane shots that lay out truths about the troubled conditions of the world at large, and suggest that it's something that's difficult for the characters to see from where they stand. At the same time, they allow the camera to break away from the restrictions on the characters and move freely, perhaps finding some liberation in the filmmakers' own ability to see what the characters cannot; it was made, after all, by people who lived through the Cultural Revolution themselves, and were able to look back on history with a broader perspective.

On the whole, it gives the impression that the dogmatism and anti-intellectualism of Mao's government is essentially opposed to human interest. The Xus' familial love helps them endure the sorrow inflicted by both this and general misfortune, but also sets them up to lose so much more when disaster strikes. The film is separated into chapters, each corresponding with a different period of time. The way the Xus have survived and changed since the previous chapter is always apparent, both in how they aged and in subtle details of their behavior, but each chapter is also marked by some historical action taken by the revolutionaries, be it the Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution.

So, there's tension between the supportive love shared among family members and its incapacity to prevent the revolutionary government from taking a severe toll on their lives. It's liberating to see the film's mild optimism paired with its more-or-less omniscient perspective, but there's also a nagging need for more than just optimism. The film's final shot follows Fugui and Jiazhen telling their grandson that he'll grow up strong, in a modern world, and his life will improve: the film holds on the family eating a meal together in silence as the credits roll along the bottom half of the screen. It's nice to see them finally have some peace, but we're stuck in time, without any sign of the better future they promised in sight. To Live keeps things constantly at odds like this, but in a way that never lacks emotional or ideological clarity. I respect any film that pulls off such a delicate balancing act.

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