To Live (1994)


Director: Zhang Yimou

Starring: Gong Li, Ge You

It is amazing how as humans we can connect on some sublime, emotional level, regardless of cultural background. I felt myself connect on that level with the characters of this fantastic film, which was directed by auteur Zhang Yimou. Banned in China for its political commentary, this controversial film raises the bar of what the art of moviemaking was meant to be. Yimou has constructed a story that provides the viewer the chance to subconsciously feel the suffering and the joy and the heartache of a couple of peasants from rural China. Quite simply put, this is the greatest film I have ever seen.

The story begins in 1940’s China, with our main character, Fugui (Ge You). We are led to believe he is a compulsive gambler. Due to his addictions, he does not seem to notice that his family fortunes are dwindling with every loss to the local puppet theater owner, Long’er. At home, he encounters a sad representation of his possible future self, in the form of his bitter father, a loving, yet concerned wife, named Jiazhen (Gong Li), and his daughter. Soon enough, we see Fugui lose everything in one final dice game, in turn which leads to Jiazhen and their daughter to leave him. This is where out story truly begins.

Fugui, a lost man with no home, no family, and no money, struggles. It is this basis upon the which the movie shines, as this most basic of premises- one’s struggle to survive- is something anyone can identify with. There is a crucial scene where he begs Long’er for money, that we witness true humanity at its most raw. Ge You, the wonderful star of such great films as The Emperor’s Shadow and Butterfly Smile, gave a performance that cannot be classified as anything but truthful, which gives this film its heart. Along for the ride with him is Gong Li, the luminescent actress from Yimou’s first hit, Raise the Red Lantern, that just steals every scene she makes her presence in. It is rare to see a film get these emotions out of an actor so naturally, and Zhang Yimou does it in spades.

The human nature to conform to popular sentiment for the sake of survival is another major vehicle driving this film, as we see Fugui ands Jiazhen dealing with the force of Maoist authority. At a time where you were either with the Maoists or against them, they knew that the survival of their family required them to conform, whether they agreed or not.

The story is told in parts, each one a different decade, starting in the 40’s and moving on into the 70’s. Along the way these two experience all those things we humans are forced to struggle with in all our years- death, sickness, betrayal, doubt, anger, and happiness. It makes them all too human. It makes them you and I.

Yimou has yet to make a film this powerful, although he has come close on many occassions. But how can you upstage perfection? It is amazing that the most awe-inspiring film of the modern age is one so simple as a story of utter humanity.

3 thoughts on “To Live (1994)”

  1. check out his earlier Ju Dou (1990)…the most beautifully subtle filmic form of dissension i’ve maybe ever seen

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