China is kind of a big deal right now. But for a country that plays such a pivotal role in the world, how much do you know about the four thousand eventful years of history behind it? If you’re like me, the answer is… well, not much. My classes in school never really went there, focusing on the supposedly more relevant history of Europe and the U.S.A. Even the past several decades—when the world has been interconnected enough that what happened in East Asia was of at least some consequence to us in the West—are so dauntingly complex that it’s hard for a layperson to know where to start. Fortunately, as with any foreign culture, in addition to the many informative books and articles out there, a great deal can be learned from its cinema, even if we’re only able to explore it at a surface level—the greatest hits and the biggest names. In China, one of those names is the director Zhang Yimou, whose prolific career has included some of the Chinese movies best known to Western audiences. If you ever saw Hero (2002), with Jet Li as a nameless kung fu master recounting his exploits to (and possibly trying to assassinate!) the emperor, or House of Flying Daggers (2004), a gorgeous martial-arts romance that doesn’t feature quite as many flying daggers as one might hope—in both cases, that was Zhang behind the camera.[i] Amid such a high-octane body of work, it’s all too easy to overlook To Live, his deeply affecting 1994 drama that brings recent Chinese history to life with an eloquence and emotional clarity that most historical epics can only gesture towards.
At first glance, it might seem strange to call To Live[ii] an epic at all. It focuses on a family of no historical significance and takes place almost entirely in a single unnamed town in the north of China, far from the major cities where all the big, society-shaping decisions are being made. There’s very little historical exposition, yet as a Westerner,[iii] you come away from this movie feeling like you’ve learned a great deal about China in the middle of the twentieth century. How does Zhang do it? The solution is deceptively simple: he depicts the grand historical events through the eyes of a married couple, Fugui and Jiazhen, whose modest aspirations anybody, Chinese or otherwise, can relate to. The idea isn’t original to Zhang; storytellers have been using ordinary people as windows into history for centuries. But Zhang has assets that elevate that familiar device into something truly moving: a skillful and heartfelt adaptation of powerful source material; a pair of masterful lead performances; and his own great talent for gorgeously expressive visual storytelling.
The result is a movie that’s thoroughly captivating, even as it hits the standard emotional notes (both high and low) of the family-across-decades subgenre. Marital strife and reconciliation, financial catastrophe, war, political upheaval, children growing up and having children themselves, tragic loss, strained friendship—it’s all there, and while none of these plot developments are exactly original, Zhang and screenwriter Lu Wei avoid many of the narrative pitfalls that historical epics commonly run into. They take care to ensure that events arise organically, with plausible origins in the historical context and in the personalities of the characters, so that despite the prodigious catalogue of woe that befalls Fugui and Jiazhen, it doesn’t feel like the trials and tribulations are being piled on purely for tear-jerking purposes.[iv]
It’s not just about logical cohesion, though; more often than not, these familiar elements are subtly tweaked, redirected, or inverted in a way that makes them feel fresh. Sometimes it’s clear enough to be spelled out in the dialogue: Fugui gambles his family into financial ruin, but it ends up saving their lives a decade later, when the Communists take over and any link to the old aristocracy becomes a potentially lethal liability. Mostly, however, the adjustments are more finely drawn. Long’er, the man who conspires to take Fugui’s fortune, is hardly a monster, just a suave aristocrat with a greedy streak running through an otherwise decent personality; he does all he can to ease Fugui’s transition into his new life of poverty, even offering to take care of his aging mother for a time. In the manner of a straightforward antagonist, he coldly denies Fugui’s request for a small loan, but then proceeds to give him something much more valuable: the beautiful set of hand-crafted shadow puppets that allow Fugui to earn a living, and end up saving his life on multiple occasions. Indeed, the puppets are set up to be another common element in the historical epic: the heirloom (or some other emotionally significant object) that accompanies the protagonists across the decades—except here, the puppets don’t make it all the way through, falling victim to the paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. When Fugui and his friend Chunsheng get swept up in the civil war, the grizzled, jaded veteran they meet doesn’t advantage of their fear and naiveté, but takes them under his wing and provides life-saving advice. The town’s top Communist official, Mr. Niu, is a true believer who eagerly carries out cold-hearted policies, but he’s also a friendly, attentive leader with a genuine desire to improve the lives of his people. When Fugui brings his son Youqing to work after days without sleep, tragedy results not from a steel-smelting mishap, but from a much more mundane, preventable, and even darkly ironic accident. A hastily arranged marriage for the couple’s shy, mute daughter Fengxia feels similarly ominous, until her husband turns out to be a thoroughly decent man who falls in love with her and fits seamlessly into the family.
And the list could go on; all throughout the movie, Zhang deftly subverts our expectations in this way. The adjustments are minor, but the effect is exponential. The story is more interesting, but it also feels more accurate, more attuned to the twists and turns of real life, which so rarely align with tired plot points.
Moreover, everything is depicted in Zhang’s typically elegant visual style, expertly rendered here by cinematographer Lü Yue. To Live is actually quite visually restrained by Zhang’s standards; in other movies both before and after, he tends to go all-out on the vivid colors and stylized compositions, as if testing the limits of overused critical terms like ‘sumptuous’ and ‘visual splendor’.[v] Still, his restraint here dovetails neatly with the modest scale of the story, and the movie is still far from visually dull. Zhang is one of those gifted artists who will take care to compose an arresting image even for unimportant, throwaway-type moments: a man walking away down a deserted street, the beautifully intricate work of the shadow puppet troupe, or a pauper selling trinkets on the street, huddled against the winter cold. Such visual generosity is always welcome, and it’s crucial in a historical fiction film like this, which aims to immerse us as much in the setting and the time period as in the plot.
Zhang’s visual instincts are even more impressive in important moments; he has a knack for finding images that perfectly illuminate massive historical forces on an individual level. At the beginning, he draws our attention to the ledger full of Fugui’s debts, a charming relic of an earlier era that, with blood-red thumbprints along the bottom in lieu of signatures, is also slightly ominous, portending not only Fugui’s bankruptcy, but the downfall of the whole social order that he represents. Zhang signals the arrival of the Communist Revolution with a bayonet punching through the screen used in Fugui’s puppet shows—a simple, almost comical image that evokes the dangerous cocktail of violence, excitement, and uncertainty that comes with civil war. A wide shot of Fugui and Chunsheng fleeing down a snowy hillside, quickly dwarfed by an endless wave of soldiers in pursuit, forcefully illustrates the helpless position of ordinary bystanders in the midst of such a conflict. Later on, when Zhang lingers on the aftermath of a festive night of steel production, the people sleeping around the forge look disconcertingly like corpses, suggesting that as jubilant as this community-wide project has been, it’s probably not going to end well. For me, one of the most powerful shots is a simple close-up of Fugui’s treasured puppets burning, succinctly showing how not even the most treasured and beautiful artifacts of the past are safe from the relentless modernizing forces of the Cultural Revolution. And finally, the human cost of that upheaval is made brutally clear in the image of an experienced doctor, weakened by imprisonment and starvation, passed out on the floor as a medical emergency unfolds behind him.
Another key factor in the movie’s success is Zhang’s excellent sense of pacing. Any movie that condenses three decades into just over two hours is going to feel rushed at times, but Zhang does a remarkably good job of making us feel the weight of all those passing years. He doesn’t succumb to the cliché of signaling a significant jump forward with a quick montage of nostalgia-tinged images, an approach that rarely (if ever) really works. He knows it can be done less obtrusively, through changes in clothing and hairstyles, the arrival and departure of minor characters, and especially the seasonal backdrop—the progress from spring and summer towards fall and winter is clear and persistent, appealing to our hardwired sense of time in annual chunks, but also irregular, so we intuit that this is happening over many different years. He’s also helped immeasurably by Zhao Jiping’s wistful theme music, which evokes old memories and the long-term passage of time even when the images don’t show it.
Zhang also makes the smart choice to divide the movie into three distinct sections, each covering one decade and quite narrowly focused. (The middle chapter, covering ‘The 1950s,’ unfolds over no more than a couple of weeks, and even the two more expansive ones linger on key moments rather than painting in broad brushstrokes.) Concentrating on these short but consequential time periods is another slight adjustment that adds a great deal to the movie, giving both the story and the characters room to breathe. It lets Zhang make use of a clever narrative device not available in most other circumstances: namely, creating tension simply by focusing on ordinary, mundane events. In a movie that spans many years, we know we’re seeing only the most important moments—the highlights, so to speak, of a much more detailed story—so when the movie lingers on things that seems trivial, we’re left in a muted but persistent state of anticipation, until something momentous finally does come to pass. To adapt and paraphrase another critic’s excellent description of this technique: The big community-steel-making sequence goes on forever, and you’re not quite sure why—until, suddenly, you are.[vi] We see it elsewhere as well, in the tense lead-up to Fuigui’s capture by the Communist forces, and when he and Jiazhen nervously make small talk while Fengxia is in labor. This willingness to delve into the details of everyday life is especially valuable for foreign viewers, serving to immerse us more fully in a fascinatingly unfamiliar world.
Most important of all, Zhang is free to give us a more complete portrait of his characters. Fugui and Jiazhen could easily have been one-dimensional victims, nobly suffering through one hardship after another. But by narrowing the movie’s focus, Zhang is able to expand its emotional range. It’s not just about fitting some welcome moments of levity into the proceedings; the lead performances, by Ge You as Fugui and Gong Li as Jiazhen, are much more nuanced than they would otherwise have been. We see them in crisis, but also in less serious moments, learn a bit about their quirks and, crucially, their flaws, so that we come to know them not just as pawns on a historical chessboard, but as human beings with recognizable personalities and many normal facets to their lives.
I often find it rather difficult to judge performances in Chinese, with its intonations and vocal rhythms so different from English, but Ge and Gong’s work here transcends such barriers. Even back in 1994, Ge was already a well-established star in China, known mostly (I was initially surprised to learn) for comedic roles. But his gangly frame and angular features turn out to be just as well suited to a serious role as an ordinary rural citizen: not movie-star handsome in a way that might stretch belief, but distinctive and expressive enough that our attention is always drawn to him. His low-key but undeniable screen presence is a perfect fit for the role; apart from skillfully navigating the emotional notes of the story, he projects a combination of decency, optimism, and practical-minded resilience that make Fugui easy to root for—with a near-constant undercurrent of mild bewilderment that makes him an ideal audience surrogate in this confusing, rapidly shifting milieu. It says a lot that although Fugui can be obstinate and misguided, the only time he’s truly unlikable is at the beginning, when he’s a spoiled son of the aristocracy. Ge manages to make that arrogant asshole and the modest family man he becomes recognizably the same person, someone who only grows more sympathetic even as he makes some significant mistakes. And his background in comedy actually informs another compelling facet of his performance: an understated way of bringing out (or sometimes simply gesturing towards) notes of irony and bitter humor even in deadly serious parts of the story.
Gong, meanwhile, is even more interesting. She, too, was already famous when To Live was made, fresh off a lead role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), which was well on its way to becoming one of the Chinese films most admired in the West. But like Ge, she manages to slip quite seamlessly into the movie’s setting. Her statuesque features are more recognizably those of a movie star (she has convincingly played empresses and nightclub singers, and was once voted the most beautiful woman in China) but with a plain haircut and workaday clothes, she doesn’t look out of place in a crowd of provincial townspeople. She’s undeniably gorgeous, but in a way that’s only a few steps removed from ordinary, if that makes any sense.
I think of Gong a bit like the Meryl Streep of Asia; the actresses are analogous in a number of ways, from the particular qualities of their screen presence (strikingly, almost imposingly elegant, yet still appealing and accessible) to their prodigious acting skills: unless a character is spectacularly ill-conceived, or the dialogue truly terrible, they’re going to be compelling to watch even if the movie isn’t. Neither of those obstacles exist in To Live; Gong works from a good script, playing a character who is almost entirely sympathetic. Fugui may technically be the movie’s protagonist, driving the plot and giving voice to the main ideas, but Jiazhen is its heart and aching conscience; the movie would not be nearly so poignant without the moral and emotional clarity that she provides. There’s no shortage of capital-A Acting in the role; Gong is called upon to tearfully walk out of a marriage, break down at the return of a presumed-dead husband, and weep for a dead child on three different occasions, and she does so with a raw, straightforward power that speaks to the universality of basic human emotions. Near the end, when Fengxia dies from complications in childbirth, Zhang zeroes in on a close-up of Jiazhen, crying and begging the nurses to save her last surviving child, and you don’t need to speak her language to feel the full force of Gong’s performance.
Such scenes are the emotional backbone of the movie, but as powerful as they are, Gong’s portrayal would still feel rather one-dimensional if she didn’t have more to do. Jiazhen doesn’t evolve in the same way as Fugui; her humility, good judgment, and heartbreaking willingness to take responsibility for misfortunes that aren’t her fault, are all fairly constant throughout the movie. It’s she who benefits the most from the story’s narrowed focus, and the corresponding attention to ostensibly mundane details. So along with the instances of high emotion, we see Jiazhen going about her normal life: washing clothes, fussing over a child’s school lunch, planning a practical joke with her son to cheer him up, meticulously poring over fabrics at a shop, and so on. For me, it’s these minor elements that really complete Jiazhen as a character; this woman of a distant culture and an earlier era, whose life experience is almost entirely alien to most of us, becomes much more familiar, perhaps even reminiscent of any number of unassuming, devoted mothers that we’ve encountered in our own lives—a connection which, in turn, makes her suffering all the more heart-rending. And while these fleeting moments may not demand her most impressive efforts, Gong clearly recognizes their importance; unmarried, without children, and only twenty-nine years old at the time, she approaches them with the same attention to detail as the big dramatic scenes, ensuring that she gets them right.
Meanwhile, just as impressive as the individual performances (and just as important, especially in this sort of movie) is the way that the two leads share the screen. Fugui and Jiazhen’s story is not a genre-typical one of impassioned romance amid turbulent history; we don’t see how they met, and the lone rough patch in their marriage is over and done with by the end of the first act. There are tragedies and disagreements afterwards, but never much doubt that the couple will stay together for good. Ge and Gong portray that deep commitment largely without overt displays of affection, focusing instead on the easy rapport and comfort in each other’s presence that characterize any solid marriage. Fugui and Jiazhen are portrayed less as passionate lovers than as a mostly well-functioning team, a romantic dynamic that’s much harder to convincingly capture onscreen. Ge and Gong even manage (aided, of course, by Zhang’s expert storytelling) to make these subtler bonds grow noticeably stronger as the movie goes on.
The same understated realism can be found in the movie’s approach to aging. No actor, filmed over a period of months, is really going to look like they’ve aged thirty years, and Zhang makes the wise decision not to use prosthetics and visual effects to try and sell it. (Such efforts aren’t always convincing even now, and certainly wouldn’t have been in China twenty-five years ago.) New costumes and altered hairstyles help,[vii] but Ge and Gong depict the aging process mostly through changes in the way they carry themselves. They don’t overdo it, shambling and hunched over like young people imitating the elderly. They understand the way most older people actually move: a bit slower and heavier, each motion taking just a little more effort, more deliberate but less controlled (Gong, in particular, nails the faint loosening of limbs and joints that age brings on)—in other words, doing their best to move with the same ease and grace that they did when they were younger. Fugui and Jiazhen are not ancient at the end, and don’t look terribly different at a glance, but the effects of thirty hard years are relatively convincing, precisely because they’re so subtly telegraphed. To illustrate the strength of their acting and of Zhang’s storytelling: pause the movie near the end and think back to the beginning, and you may be struck (as I was) by just how long ago it feels.
There are obvious reasons for such thoroughness: the movie feels more realistically lived-in, and the more we feel that we’ve actually been with the characters through many years, the greater our emotional investment in their well-being. But I think Zhang also intends for the inexorable passage of time to become an odd source of comfort; apart from the family’s instinctive love for each other, it’s about the only thing in the movie that’s completely predictable, straightforward, and unwavering. And this is the way that Zhang, working in an environment of strict artistic censorship, manages to engage with the fraught history and sensitive politics of the story he’s telling. For all its verisimilitude, To Live does not offer a totally accurate depiction of its time period—or rather, not a complete one, since it glosses over perhaps the most painful event in those three decades: the devastating famine that ravaged the country from around 1959-1961. It killed anywhere from 15 million (official government statistics, of course) to 45 million people (as some scholars contend), and was largely caused—or, at best, made markedly worse—by the sweeping policy changes of the Great Leap Forward. Zhang, in need of at least a decent relationship with the Party to have any career at all, had little choice but to leave it out if he ever wanted the movie to see the light of day.[viii]
And as strange as it sounds to say it, skipping over the famine makes some artistic sense as well. It was especially bad in rural areas like the town where Fugui and Jiazhen live, and would have been impossible to portray as anything other than an unmitigated horror show. Here in the West, that’s basically how we (encouraged by our own leaders, with their own agendas) think of Chinese Communism at that time: civil war, starvation, mob violence, and ruined lives, the whole nine yards of human misery. Millions of people did suffer those things, but Zhang was never going to be allowed to make a movie about them. He chose to focus on the lives that weren’t utterly destroyed by the Revolution, the untold millions of ordinary people just doing their best (as the movie’s title indicates) to live through turbulent, dangerous times. He knew that even without going fully polemical, he could still show the effects of such a massive social upheaval. So along with the undercurrents of sadness, there’s a mild but persistent atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, of things never quite working out the way we expect—or indeed, the way we feel they should. Zhang’s way of subtly modifying genre conventions is just one example. Isolated moments verge on the comical, like when Fugui, upon learning that his former home was burned down, feels the need to denounce it as “counterrevolutionary timber,” or when Mr. Niu deftly steers a wedding ceremony into a celebration of Chairman Mao. In a broader sense: three main tragedies befall the family, and while they are all in some way Fugui’s fault, the depth of the pain is inversely proportional to the extent of his poor judgment. His reckless hedonism plunges the family into bankruptcy, and it ends up saving all their lives. It seems a bit harsh when he insists that the exhausted Youqing go to school, but given the political climate, we can understand his apprehension about being seen as “politically backward.” And when Fengxia begins to hemorrhage, no one can help her because Fugui gave a starving man something to eat.
The sad fate of Youging and Fengxia also carries an implicit message that’s more straightforwardly political. It’s not always spelled out in the rhetoric, and no one in the movie says so outright, but revolutions are always, in some sense, about the children—it’s the only way that the true believers can get most ordinary citizens on board. Very few people will lay down their life for a political ideology. Pretty much everyone will lay down their life for their children. This is the revolution’s simple, often irresistible promise: a better life for future generations. In China (as everywhere else) it wasn’t nearly that simple, and what better way to illustrate the collision of high ideals with messy reality than that simple tragedy: the revolution is supposed to be for the children, and both of Fugui and Jiazhen’s children end up dead—from accidents whose connection to the revolution is indirect but unmistakable. It’s also no accident that the characters most committed to the revolution, Mr. Niu and Chunsheng, end up getting screwed by it in the most predictable fashion, denounced as capitalists by ambitious subordinates.
There’s a scene near the beginning that perfectly encapsulates the expansive, multi-faceted way that Zhang portrays this instability onscreen. Fugui and his companions, having slept through the retreat, wake up to find the military encampment deserted. The Communists are coming, and we’re imploring Fugui and the others to get the hell out of there, or at least get out of sight until the enemy shows up. Instead, Chunsheng hops into a truck. We see him in close-up, pretending to drive the way a child might, and the tension is palpable because it seems like the setup for a classic way that movies announce the arrival of an advancing army: a sudden bullet through the windshield to dispatch a minor character. But it doesn’t come, and both Chunsheng and Fugui survive. Yet this moment, which seems at first like a clever bit of directorial sleight of hand, will come to resonate much more profoundly. Chunsheng eventually realizes his dream of becoming a driver, only to accidentally kill Youqing. And by the end, when he’s been denounced as a reactionary, his wife has committed suicide, and Jiazhen is calling in the life he owes them to keep him from killing himself, we can’t help but think that maybe it would have been better for everyone if a bullet had come through that windshield, like we thought it would.
Still, this isn’t a simple case of an angry director finding clever workarounds to condemn a repressive regime. I think Zhang’s politics are genuinely more complicated than that; some of his major works—movies he clearly cares about—lie comfortably within the Party’s strict confines, and he readily includes some of the positive sides of the Revolution: the atmosphere of merry cooperation at the steel works and the communal kitchens, the genuine pride of the townspeople when their efforts produce a modest lump of steel, or the generous camaraderie of the son-in-law Erxi and his crew of Red Guards. And whatever criticisms Zhang may lob at the government, he clearly sees a great deal to admire in regular people. Perhaps his cleverest act of subversion—and the main reason that the movie isn’t a long slog through misery—is that flashes of basic decency and emotional honesty keep overriding ideology and dogma. When Fugui returns home, Jiazhen leaves a water jug overflowing, and no one calls her out for wasting resources. The young nursing students who take over the hospital are arrogant and dismissive, but when things go wrong, they’re as distraught as everyone else. When the family’s modest funeral for Youqing is interrupted with a gaudy arrangement of flowers proclaiming him a hero of the Revolution, Jiazhen flings it on the ground and tells them all to go shove it, and Mr. Niu lets it slide, recognizing that this isn’t the time for Party purity.
For Zhang, the Revolution may not have delivered the utopia it promised, but it wasn’t all misery, and he clearly feels no nostalgia for the society that preceded it, when a few undeserving louts (like Fugui at the time) had it all, while the rest of the country literally carried them on their backs. Some societal realignment needed to happen, and what they got was Communism, which brought some real benefits for many people, but wasn’t immune to the structural problems and human flaws that have been causing small, personal tragedies since the dawn of civilization.
True to form, Zhang closes with a moment that succinctly encapsulates that ambivalence. In a short epilogue “some years later,” the family’s tragic past still weighs heavily on them, either at the forefront or in the background of everything they do. But it’s not all despair: Jiazhen has some version of the quiet life she wanted, and although they’ve suffered great losses, she and Fugui still have a family. They don’t have much, but in some sense, they have enough—the movie ends with them sitting down to eat.
After watching To Live, we don’t necessarily know a great deal more about the history of China in the middle twentieth century than we did before. But we may feel that we understand it in a whole new way, because we’ve been through it with people whose virtues, flaws and aspirations we can all relate to. Just before the credits roll, Fugui and Jiazhen spin a little parable for their grandson about his new chicks growing into oxen. The boy wants to ride an ox, and Fugui declares, “[He] won’t ride an ox. He’ll ride trains and planes, and life will get better and better.” The statement is full of optimism, but the poverty of their surroundings, and the note of resignation in his voice, speak to their own sad experience.
If there’s a more beautifully concise way to capture the emotional life of China in the early years of Communism, the grand promises and the hard reality, I’m not sure what it could be. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[i] Zhang did attempt a mainstream American blockbuster a few years ago with the Matt Damon action vehicle The Great Wall, but the less said about that, the better.
[ii] And since you’re already thinking it: yes, I’m aware of how clunky and even pretentious that title sounds. Some English versions translate it as Lifetimes, which isn’t much better, but this movie earns such a weighty title as well as any, and it presumably sounds more elegant in Mandarin.
[iii] Throughout this article, I’ll be discussing the movie as it appeals to a Western audience, since that’s the perspective I know. I imagine that the experience would be quite different (and probably more powerful) for a Chinese viewer, especially someone more immediately familiar with the history being depicted.
[iv] This is, by the way, the clearest example of smart adaptation from the source material. The original novel seems (based, it should be said, on the Wikipedia plot synopsis, not my actually having read it) to be more of a fable-esque tragedy; by the end of it, everyone in Fugui’s family has died, leaving him a destitute peasant with only an ox for company. It may well be a powerful read, but I don’t think that version of the story would’ve worked nearly as well onscreen.
[v] Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Lavish visuals are lovely to look at, and they often feel quite appropriate in Zhang’s operatic sagas set in quasi-mythical versions of ancient China, like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).
[vi] That was the Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, writing about the Italian epic The Best of Youth, in a review that seems to have pulled off the rare feat of disappearing from the Internet.
[vii] I liked the solution that the filmmakers found for Ge’s balding: give him a fashionably shaved head at the beginning, then let his greatly receded hairline grow back a bit when he’s playing an older man.
[viii] It was, unsurprisingly, still banned in China, where movies must be transparently pro-Party to make it into the multiplex. But perhaps in winking recognition of the movie’s nuanced view of history, Zhang’s punishment was a relatively lenient two-year ban from filmmaking.