Zhang YImou’s sixth, and perhaps finest, feature film, To Live (Huozhe, 1994), outlines the struggles of a married couple during the period China was under the erratic and arbitrary rule of Mao Zedong. As such, the film draws immediate comparisons to two contemporary films by other Beijing Film Institute graduates, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (Lan Feng Zheng, 1993) and Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji, 1993) which cover consequentially tragic disruptions during the same turbulent times. But Zhang’s film is different and rises above the obvious political and historical issues of those days to present a more profound and melancholy view of ordinary Chinese people’s struggles just to live a quiet, normal life.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is the way it presents undistinguished people far removed from the centers of the critical sociopolitical action of the day, and yet those same characters carry metaphorical overtones that suggest a larger commentary. This is one of the reasons why To Live is a great work. Of course, commentary on contemporary Chinese society is fraught with difficulties for anyone operating inside China, which has never in its long history enjoyed freedom of expression. Of the three films (of Tian, Chen, and Zhang) mentioned here covering the period of the Cultural Revolution, all of which avoided explicit criticism of the government, certainly To Live was the tamest – it did not even show any of the social violence or direct mass suffering of those times. In addition, Zhang Yimou has always objected to any suggestions that his films carry social criticisms of the Chinese system and has insisted that his films are really about universal, human issues. Zhang’s disclaimer notwithstanding, though, I do believe that To Live makes a poetic statement about not just human society, but Chinese society, in particular, and apparently the Chinese authorities saw it that way, too. Despite the precautions taken, To Live did not please the Chinese government censorial authorities: the film was banned, and both Zhang and his leading actress, Gong Li, received two-year bans on further co-productions and on even speaking about their film.
The story of the film about Xu Fugui and his wife Jiazhen is divided into five clearly delineated sections separated by significant gaps in time.
1. The Gambler (late 1940s - 21 minutes) Fugui is a carefree, dissipated member of the urban gentry who spends much of his time rolling dice in gambling parlors. His family, which includes his long-suffering pregnant wife, a young daughter, and his aged parents, urge him to give up his dissolute ways, but his gambling addiction has the better of him. While his wife Jiazhen says she only wants to live a simple life, Fugui, himself, is attracted to the glitter of a corrupted milieu. Before long he has gambled away the entire family estate, losing everything, including the family mansion, to an ingratiating schemer and puppet-show operator, Long’er. In no time at all Fugui has no home, his father has died of a stroke, and his wife and daughter have abandoned him. He now finds himself reduced to selling needles and thread in the local street market.Usually the most interesting narratives feature some sort of journey towards a goal, with perhaps some adversaries, or villains, that must be overcome along the way. The reader/viewer’s interest in the story is often sustained by showing the conflict between the protagonist and the adversaries or obstacles to be overcome In the case of To Live, however, there are no clearly identifiable villains, and there is no goal, other than simply “to live” a normal life without torment. All of the characters shown are ordinary people trying to operate according to the often-capricious rules. Even the opportunist gambler, Long’er, does nothing illegal and is not a true villain. Yet Zhang Yimou fashions a compelling story, anyway, by powerfully alluding to things not seen on the screen. In this case the unseen horror is the always-lurking potential for disruptive calamities that haunted the Chinese people during this era. Zhang conveys this horror, not by showing angry mobs or destructive riots, but by depicting ordinary people anxiously trying to get out of the way of these firestorms and live their own lives peaceably. It is often more scary not to show the monster, but to show the fear of the monster – for example Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was more horrifying than James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) by not explicitly showing the alien monster and rather showing the protagonists fearfully trying to figure out what the monster might do. Here, too, Zhang achieves a haunting effect of fear in To Live by, for example, by depicting the unhesitating willingness on the part of Fugui and Jiazhen to have their building painted over with huge pictures of Mao. It presents the picture of people whose survival instincts have trained them to automatically accept these things in order to avoid trouble. And yet, try as they might to avoid it, trouble comes to them, anyway.
2. The War of Liberation (1949 - 30 minutes). Months later, the now-reformed Fugui runs into his wife with their newborn son, and she agrees to take him into her meager quarters and renew their marriage. Fugui then acquires Long’er’s ornate shadow-puppet kit and takes over the street puppet show troupe, which includes one of Long’er’s former servants, Chunsheng. Just when things appear to be on the upswing, though, the Chinese Civil War sweeps into their part of China, and both Fugui and Chunsheng are impressed into serving in the Nationalist (Kuomintang) army fighting the Communists. After barely surviving the carnage of a bloody battle, they are taken prisoner by the Communist forces, and for the rest of the war perform their puppet show as entertainment for the troops. When he is released at the end of the war, Fugui returns to his home town and finds his wife, with whom he had not bothered to contact during the war, now destitute and barely surviving as a water-bottle delivery lady. He also learns that a severe illness has made his young daughter a partially deaf mute.
With the Civil War over and the Communists now in power, there were radically new social arrangements. “Counter-revolutionaries” and landlords are being rooted out, and everyone has been placed in communes under the jurisdiction of a local party chief. Soon Fugui witnesses the show trial and execution of Long’er, who had been accused of being a landlord due to his possession of Fugui’s family mansion. From all this Fugui and Jiazhen learn they had better keep their heads down: they conceal their past class background and swear that “poverty is good”.
3. The Great Leap Forward (1958 – 30 minutes). The years pass, and the action now shifts to 1958, when Mao launched the ruinous “Great Leap Forward”. This included mass collectivization and the attempt to push forward Chinese industrialization by organizing “backyard furnaces” for every commune. People were ordered to contribute all their iron-made tools and cooking utensils to local smelters and to work round the clock in order to achieve ambitious production quotas. Under these conditions, Fugui, in order to maintain face in the commune, orders his exhausted young son to report for work at the smelter. When his son falls asleep on the job, he is crushed to death by a falling brick wall accidentally run into by a truck driven by, as fate would have it, another exhausted worker, Chunsheng, who has now become a local Party official. The remorseful Chunsheng begs forgiveness, but Jiazhen is inconsolable and declares that he “owes her a life”.
4. The Cultural Revolution (1966 - 41 minutes) Mao launches the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, and, again, the lives of ordinary people are overwhelmed, as they struggle to keep out of the way of the unpredictable Red Guards. In the captious atmosphere Fugui and Jiazhen learn that even their loyal-to-a-fault neighborhood chief has now been exiled and that Chunsheng, too, has been denounced. When Jiazhen sees how disturbed, possibly suicidal, Chunsheng is, she feels compassion and reminds him again that he owes her a life, implying that he should preserve his own life for her sake.
In the midst of this turmoil, Fugui and Jiazhen now have the difficult task of finding a suitable husband for their mute daughter, Fengxia, and they are fortunate to find a sincere and interested Red Guard worker who is also disabled: he walks with a severe limp. The match is arranged, and soon Fengxia is expecting a baby. Things seem to be going well at this point, but tragedy strikes when Fengxia goes to the hospital maternity ward. With all the senior medical doctors banished or incarcerated and brutalized for being “capitalist roaders”, there are only youthful Red Guards around to attend to the patients. When complications with the delivery emerge, the attendants are helpless, and though the baby is born, Fengxia passes away in front of her tearful mother.
5. Coda (six years later - 7 minutes). Fugui, Jiazhen, along with Fengxia’s son and husband, make a visit to the graves of their two children. Their tone is one of complete resignation to fate and the blind hope for a better tomorrow.
So what is the unseen source of this trouble that gives rise to such fear? Certainly Zhang Yimou is correct to suggest that it extends universally to all of human society and is not something exclusive to the Chinese experience. It has to do with the tragic way that human society breaks down, the way war always erupts, the way oppression often gets the upper hand. In all cases it is the tragedy caused by people mindlessly inflicting harm on other people in accordance with the rules of their society. Nevertheless, surely the period of Chinese history covered in the film featured a particularly relentless and egregious sequence of these horrors.
However the social issues underlying what is covered here predate the advent of Communist rule in China. Chinese scholar Yan Fu (1854-1921) argued a century ago that the best and most progressive societies, whether East or West, are those that, according to Immanuel Hsü, “provided favorable conditions – liberty, rising equality of opportunity, self-government, public spirit, and impartial justice – to facilitate the liberation of the individual’s energies” so that they could be guided toward collective social goals . Yan’s argument was that effective societies provide a secure platform, i.e. a suitable operating environment, that will allow human creativity and energy to advance the overall society. But instead of offering such a stable and supportive platform, the traditional “Confucian” culture of Chinese society always sought to micro-manage human behavior and dictate individual actions, as in the manner of the father of an extended family . This tradition of intrusiveness has always been present in Chinese society and was merely amplified during the Maoist era (and, of course, it is carried on in many other parts of the world, as well). This is not to minimize the ingenious organizational techniques that the Chinese developed over the course of history to manage vast societies. But the argument of Yan Fu and others is that the social philosophy of control, pervasive surveillance, and micro-management from the top down inevitably leads to sweeping reforms that cause enormously destructive disruptions at the scale of individual lives. What truly makes a society great, Yan would claim, is not just meeting targeted aggregate production quotas or undertaking command-driven collective action, but instead simply the summation of the individual achievements all the people living “ordinary” lives in harmony as best they can. The vision presented in To Live, then, is to my mind consonant with this view social interference – it has a wider compass, beyond the specifics of any of history’s calamities, and seeks shelter for the humble aspirations of ordinary people. At the end of the film, we are moved to reflect: how can societies just let people live in peace?
The story of the film To Live was based on the 1993 novel of the same name, and this followed Zhang Yimou’s practice during this period of adapting recent Chinese fiction. Despite these various adaptations and the sharply contrasting cinematic styles that Zhang chose to present them, ranging as they do across neorealism, costume dramas, comedies, epics, and existential journeys, it is interesting that there seems to be a persistent auteurist stamp on all of his films. This aesthetic commonality is due in part, of course, to Zhang’s artistic sensitivity concerning color and depicting visual space. Moreover, he also very skillfully uses eye-contact to maintain smooth continuity in a scene, even though he regularly separates and fragments a scene into specific points of view. These perspectival separations contribute to an emotional dynamism and a heightened tension to his scenes that sustain the viewer’s interest. Another visual touch that subtly evokes the down-to-earth humanity of the ordinary people in this particular work is the frequent closeup footage of freshly prepared food throughout the film. These shots, which are inconspicuously woven into the narrative, bring forth the vivid character of everyday life that is essential to the story. In addition to his visual technique,s Zhang uses background music effectively to convey emotional moods. In To Live, in particular, Zhao Jiping’s musical score employing traditional Chinese instrumentation is exquisite, and the melancholy main theme underscores some of the most poignant moments in the film. Zhao had also composed the music for Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (Hong Gao Liang, 1987), Raise the Red Lantern (Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua, 1991) , and The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju Da Guan Si, 1992), and his work even goes back to that first film of Chen Kaige’s, Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di, 1984), for which Zhang Yimou was the cinematographer.
These vivid, visually stylistic features of Zhang Yimou's help to keep the viewer personally involved in the emotional dynamics of the story. This is why we can say that Zhang’s films are often expressionistic and also have an existentialist aura. And yet at the same time, in To Live, there is a larger, humanistic theme to the story, and this is what elevates the film to an unusually high level. As I mentioned earlier, the story doesn’t seem to have a goal or a clearly-defined adversary, and yet there is narrative development in the characters that is more than a plot line for human interest – the character development is essential to the narrative meaning. The two principal characters, Fugui and Jiazhen, are realistically played by Ge You and Gong Li, and yet their roles also carry certain metaphorical overtones. Gong Li projected the understated sense of quiet, feminine passion that she usually brings to a role in Zhang Yimou’s films, while Ge You won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance.
The role of Jiazhen might symbolize the long-suffering patience of the Chinese people. By the end of each of the narrative acts, she has stoically experienced a severe loss and degradation of her life:
- Act 1 (The Gambler) : loss of her home and the financial means to sustain her children
- Act 2 (The War of Liberation): loss of the health of her daughter, Fengxia.
- Act 3 (The Great Leap Forward): loss of her son.
- Act 4 (The Cultural Revolution): loss of her daughter
- Act 5 (Coda): loss of her health
- In Act 1 his complete arrogant self-indulgence leads to the financial ruin of his family.
- In Act 2 he focuses on his own survival and neglects to contact his wife during the Civil War. When he returns, he finds that she is destitute and that his daughter has been crippled by a severe illness.
- In Act 3 his weak and sycophantic behavior in the commune environment evokes images of Lu Xun’s famous story, “The True Story of Ah Q”. In that story the title character has no personal values or principles, and he emphatically adopts whatever posture or action might appear to be endorsed by the group. Here in To Live, Fugui’s efforts to maintain his "face" in the commune is at the expense of his own family and tragically contributes to his son’s death.
- In Act 4 Fugui unthinkingly gives a famished medical doctor (who had been retrieved from the Red Guards to the hospital by his son-in-law) too many steam buns and water, thereby accidentally incapacitating him at a crucial moment when the doctor might have saved Fengxia’s life. In this case Fugui's behavior was quite innocent and unselfish, although he will later blame himself for what happened. Also during this segment, Fugui shows compassionate concern for Chunsheng's personal torment at the hands of the Red Guards.
- In Act 5 Fugui has become self-critical and humble, blaming himself for his daughter's death. He is clearly solicitous towards his wife and has become more sensitive to the to the potentially harmful consequences of his own actions.
- Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, The Rise of Modern China (1995), Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, p. 422.
- For example the long-standing traditional judicial system, oriented as it was around the patriarchal metaphor, enforced the following: the inequality of the sexes, the prevention of women from inheriting property, the denial of illegitimate children (such as offspring from concubines) from family succession, the collective punishment of all family members for crimes committed by a single member, and the “Ten Unpardonable Crimes” (parricide, unfilial behavior, incest, disharmony, insubordination, rebellion, conspiracy against the ruler, treason, inhuman offenses, and sacrilege). Ibid, p. 427.