TO LIVE (Huozhe)


(director: Zhang Yimou; screenwriters: Yu Hua /Lu Wei/based on the novel by Mr. Yu; cinematographer: Yue Lu; editor: Yuan Du; music: Jiping Zhao; cast: Ge You (Fugui), Gong Li (Jiazhen), Niu Ben (Town Chief), Guo Tao (Chungsheng), Jiang Wu (Er Xi), Ni Da Hong (Long Er), Dong Fei (Youqing), Liu Tian Chi (Fengxia as adult), Zhang Lu (Fengxia as adolescent), Xiao Cong (Fengxia as child); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Chiu Fusheng; World Films; 1994-China-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“It rushes through history as if it were firemen rushing to a fire.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Supposedly Red China’s best modern director, Zhang Yimou (“Red Sorghum”/”Not One Less”/”Hero”), helms this spirited melodramatic epic that covers three decades of history starting from the 1940s. It’s seen through the eyes of an average couple who undergo tremendous personal changes in their life because of the changing political situation. The film is adapted from the book by Yu Hua, who cowrote it with Lu Wei. It rushes through history as if it were firemen rushing to a fire and shares a flatness that seemingly most epic blockbusters have in common. Though well-crafted and well-acted, it fails to engage the emotions and too many scenes seem contrived. It was the Grand Jury Prize winner at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was the recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 1995 BAFTA Awards. Even though it was mild in its political stance, shooting more for being a survival story and one cheering on the triumph of the human spirit, nevertheless it ran into Chinese censors at home who objected to the film’s commentary about political abuses in China’s past and that it was entered in foreign film festivals. Mr. Zhang had to submit a public apology to the authorities and was banned from moviemaking for two years.

In the 1940s, Xu Fugui (Ge You) is the wastrel son of a rich merchant who gambles away the family fortune and loses the valued family mansion in dice throws at the local casino to a puppeteer named Long Er. His old man dies immediately from a heart attack after acknowledging the debt and his lovely wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) becomes a beggar with her adolescent daughter Fengxia and baby son Youqing. The family reunites when Fugui swears off gambling and takes up being a puppeteer in travelling shows, as Long Er retires and lays on him his equipment. The film covers how Fugui got caught up in the civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists and the winning Mao Zedong’s communists, surviving the horrors of the battlefield, and then returning home and learning his impoverished daughter has lost her voice and that the family has to learn to survive anew the harshness of the new Communist regime and then the brutality of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s) and the Cultural Revolution (1960’s).

In a heavy-handed way, Zhang shows that the engaging family are caught in the clutches of a repressive government they are willing to work for but, at the same time, they remain hopeful because they merely want to live and don’t really care about the politics. In all these massive upheavals, the family suffers bizarre twists and tragic losses. There only hope is to remain united as a family and try to persevere. It all sounds fine, if only this family drama had some kind of head of steam to roll over the story it might have turned out more fiery. The Blue Kite covered the same turf, but director Tian Zhuangzhuang somehow got by the Chinese censors with a political story that really has something going for it without pulling punches. Tian manages to avoid sentimentality and to express sympathy for his victimized family at the hands of the abusive communists, while Zhang’s film looks limp when compared to those accomplishments.