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.
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 that life 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:
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.