Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A big success for Chinese filmmaking, To Live charts a family's fortune through slightly
more than three decades of political turmoil. The Xu clan goes from riches to poverty and suffers
the inhuman extremes of the Communist state. The scale of the film balances intimate
moments with huge historical scenes, and acting is excellent. Sentimentality isn't stressed, but
To Live becomes a picture difficult to turn off. It won top honors at Cannes in 1994.
In the 1940s, wastrel son Xu Fugui (You Ge) gambles away the family fortune and
loses the ancestral mansion, just as his wife Xu Jiazhen ( Li Gong) is leaving him. His wife and
children become beggars while he goes on the road as a puppeteer. Caught in the revolutionary
civil war, he and his friend Chunsheng (Tao Guo) survive horrors where thousands freeze. Once
Fugui returns home, his wife accepts him back, but together they have to figure out how to live
in a new Communist society that forces a huge population to live in political fear.
Perhaps as eye-opening to Chinese audiences as it is to us pampered Westerners, To Live is
the first film I've seen from a Communist country that examines Red history in some kind of
balanced way. We joke about various kinds of petty inconvenience here in the states, but actually
living through a 'cultural revolution' on the order of what happened in China is hard for us to
imagine. To Live really helps perceive what it might have been like.
The story begins as if it will stay on the personal plane, as with the director's earlier excellent
Raise the Red Lantern. The massive war, poverty, and the dictatorial oppression of the new
society can't be ignored, and it seems the Xu family's only mission is to somehow survive it all.
We quickly come to respect the individual family members. Jiazhen shows character in following through
with her threat to leave Fugui, and Fugui gets his personal compass realigned through his traumatic war
experience. No wonder when he returns, that he becomes obsessed with making sure his relationship
with the Party is a good one. There's a telling scene where he and Jiazhen recover his commendation
letter from the revolution. After witnessing the execution of an old associate for 'capitalist
tendencies', they rush to frame it for all to see.
To Live takes place mainly in a teeming Chinese city, the kind where Americans often assume
is cheap. The Xus dote on their children, but lose them to the insanity of the times through
misfortunes directly related to the extremes of the society. The wholesale Witch Hunt denunciation
process is what everyone fears; show trials are a frequent experience and we're in constant fear that
some petty quabble, like young Xu Youqing (Deng Fei) defending his sister, will invite political
retribution. Nobody seems safe. The earnest and honest block warden is denounced, as is Fugui's old
war buddy. Finally comes the absurd situation where the young students in the hospitals dismiss and
persecute the learned doctors for being reactionaries. The place operates believing that
faith in Mao will suffice in medical emergencies.
To Live is almost a generational story, like an Edna Ferber novel. But in this case, it's
simply Fugui and Jiazhen who soldier on, eventually raising their own Grandson. Along the way they
pick up a son-in law, a crippled worker who knows how to survive well in the insane system: be
vocally patriotic and paint more pictures of Mao than anyone. There's a wedding scene overloaded
with a Maoist
presence that tells us exactly how inhuman this society has become; individuals are like ants, with
almost no value in themselves.
To Live has a beautiful through-line in the form of an ornate set of shadow puppets that figure
in every major chapter. 1
The pre-revolution world of elaborate gambling halls and peasants who carry tired gamblers home
at night on their backs is quite different than the later system where all are equal but the group
reserves the right to crush individuals at will. The puppets carry Fugui through several major
calamities, but eventually become a problem of their own - they're of Mandarins and courtesans, and
being the exponent of anything old or traditional in China during the Cultural Revolution is like
having a death sentence hung around one's neck. After the testimony in the documentary
From Mao to Mozart, where just playing
foreign music can get one ostracized to starve, we really worry about the Xu family.
Beautifully produced, the film completely overwhelms us with its ability to switch from a tiny
stage to a huge canvas with thousands of extras, entire cities and battlefields, and still not
have the grandiose-for-effect feeling of a Western epic. Neither is it a The Good Earth sort
of tale where every scene has a deep moral lesson to teach. The Xus start in ignorance like
everyone else and make dreadful mistakes while doing their best. Fugui begins so flawed, we fear
that he'll have some kind of relapse. It's a story of survival that ultimately says great things
about the human spirit that my own Western ancestors would appreciate: things aren't good now, but
they're getting better, always better.
MGM's DVD of To Live is a beauty, from a pristine element transferred and encoded with great
care. The rich enhanced images don't need improvement.
The trailer included has several shots from scenes we don't see in the film itself. They could have
been outtakes, as often happens. But I doubt it, as this is an American trailer for Goldwyn and
they were probably supplied with a full cut long after release in China. So I suspect there's a much
longer version of the film out there somewhere.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Live rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2003
1. Interestingly, here are
shadow puppet theaters flourishing in China, just after I read that the shadow puppets in the flophouse
in Once Upon a Time in America were an inaccurate transposition from Singapore.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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