It can be an intimidating process to approach Chinese cinema with a view to extracting cultural clues to the psychology of the Middle Kingdom. When I first arrived in China, I asked a friend to point me in the direction of a film that could get me started on my adventure into this world. Without hesitation, he lay his finger on this film.
A colorful, historical introduction to the world of Chinese storytelling, Zhang Yimou’s 1994 drama ‘To Live’ depicts the common theme of transition between a society focused on capital and status to a vehemently idealistic egalitarianism. ‘I’ve run up a pile of debts lately, but my calligraphy is improving’, the lead Fugui half-heartedly moans, comfortable in his proprietorial success; perfectly, simplistically, describing the consistent dialogue between culture and money Zhang’s ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese directors tend to ruminate upon.
To generalize, the Fifth Generation are graduates of Beijing Film Academy who rose to prominence in the 1980s. They grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and their storytelling commonly exposes individual struggles in time without individuality, that is, the time in which they were raised. Zhang Yimou is a good starting point. Western audiences are familiar with his award-winning 2002 martial arts epic ‘Hero’, as well as the subsequent ‘House of Flying Daggers’, both of which got critics preparing for an onslaught of oriental epics that never quite washed ashore.
But ‘To Live’ is Zhang’s masterpiece. It is based on dentist-turned-novelist Yu Hua’s relentless novel of the same name, which Zhang toned down a notch to give the film a shot at being shown in China. However, what was then the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) still shook its head and put Zhang on the blacklist for a couple of years, banning him from making movies.
It’s not hard to see why. In spite of its often jolly, cartoonish tone, the hero Fugui, his family and his neighbors take a real battering throughout the various tragic events of 20th Century China: the Chinese Civil War, the establishment of Communist rule, the Cultural Revolution. And each of these events is presented through the details, the administrative procedures that sent shockwaves through local communities. It is history told from a family living room.
Finding a comparison in Western cinema is a challenge, but the journeying through historical periods is something we’ve seen expressed more comically in Forrest Gump, released the same year. Each film is a first-person perspective of 20th-century history, at opposite ends of the earth. As an introduction to a nation’s contemporary history, ‘Forrest Gump’ ticks all the right boxes, and provides a spattering of laughter and tears. The same is true of ‘To Live’. The events of each occur within a similar timeframe: as Gump bears witness to the civil-strife of the post-war U.S. until the ’80s, Fugui’s family falls victim to the more catastrophic national conflicts of China raging through the same 40-odd years.
These years are somewhat murky, so it may not be surprising that Zhang Yimou’s name is rarely met with unanimous praise if you bring it up with Chinese people. In his home country, his films are typically eschewed in favor of contemporary stories with a cheerful sparkle. As with asking directions to Shikumen buildings and being instead redirected to Lujiazui, China seems hesitant when it comes to looking back, as much of the surroundings in our cities prefer to beckon to the future. As well as the sensitive issues being presented, the film’s pace is significantly slower than popular movies now. The dialogue is simpler, but richer, containing creative uses of Chinese tropes, such as too much baozi being an indirect cause of death.
In a case like this, controversy can sometimes overshadow the merits of the film itself. But ‘To Live’ excels in depicting an emotionally engaging story of the family.
by Stuart Blackadder
Have you seen “To Live”? What did you think? Any other films by Zhang Yimou you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments down below.