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To Live

2 Ratings: 4.5
A movie directed by Yimou Zhang

This epic saga from the director of RAISE THE RED LANTERN follows four generations of one family as they struggle through the turbulence of 20th-century China. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.

Cast: Gong Li
Director: Yimou Zhang
Release Date: 1994
MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about To Live

And then? Little Bun will grow up.

  • Feb 15, 2006
Pros: Excellent story.

Cons: ...

The Bottom Line: Looking for something different? Learn a little history and then watch this for just that reason.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

Let’s pretend that for a moment you’ve never read anything about China, don’t know much of its history, or how its filmmakers work.

In which case you will be confused during certain parts of this movie. Here’s a quick overview of things you need to either look up or keep in mind.

Created by Zhang Yimou, To Live has much of the same points as any film made during what has become known as the 5th Generation of Chinese filmmakers. During this time, films had a focus on the times before, during, and maybe just a tad bit after the time Mao was in power. They question what went on, commenting on the various aspects of Chinese history during that time. Knowing some of the things that Mao was about and put forward is important when watching this movie – people of China are going to be more aware of their own history than many of us. I mean let’s face it, Forrest Gump flopped because people did not think he was heroic; culture and background understanding is important.

Anyway, I’m going to assume that you’ve found this movie for a reason and thus have some idea of what you’re going to be presented with; knowing some bit of information when faced with movements such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The Story:
Fugui gambles. A lot. So much so that his wife Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) leaves him, pregnant though she may be, and takes their only daughter, Fengxia, with her. Fugui gambles so much he loses his house to a friend named Long’er and finds himself living on the streets, selling his few belongings and virtually penniless. Still, Fugui is not without his talents and procures a box of intricately cut paper puppets from Long’er, gathers together some men, and begins his life in a traveling group of entertainers. Sustained on this income he finds a place to live, bringing his mother with, and from there his life is a cornucopia of vast experiences, and though some of them are happy and cause for celebration, there are others that are very far from good.

A story of life, love, marriage, birth, death, changes, and living in tumultuous times.

My Experience:
That summary really is only a tiny taste of what To Live really has to offer. This was the fourth movie in my film class and I admit that so far I’ve liked it the most. I knew virtually nothing of China up until this point where we read a book and articles to supplement the film, giving us background information and the director’s thoughts, who, I might add, was very quiet and maybe even evasive in his interview. As for the actors, I had no problems with them at all, and really liked how they were able to make them age as the film continued – Fugui really did appear as an old man once the 60s rolled around. The same goes for the script. Yimou and several film friends worked hard to get the script just right, and I don’t see any faults with it (even though I’m stuck with subtitles).

I loved how the puppets came to be so important in the film. Originally, the story was based on a book, but Yimou had a different cutoff point and completely added in the puppet idea. I felt it to be a very nice touch. I felt like everything was authentic – like I really was in 1940s China, moving along the years into the 1950s and so forth. Some of the camera shots were impressive and you could tell a lot of care was taken in this film to get everything just the way Yimou desired it for an effect or otherwise.

I can’t take a star from this film for being overly political because in a way it isn’t – it’s just that the times Fugui and his family lived in were. At the same time I know that Yimou is commenting on the way things were during that time, and the Chinese officials knew it too because the film was banned and Yimou not allowed to make films for the next five years. But it’s not so blatant like Michael Moore’s films are, though I suppose those could be considered more like propaganda. Anyway, there are aspects in To Live that are done very purposefully and undoubtedly the Chinese of the film bureau caught it. One particular scene is after a night of celebrating and melting of metals, the next morning everyone is asleep and the way the camera pans up, it is impossible not to think of a previous scene in which Fugui and a friend of his come upon hundreds of dead soldiers in the snow. I hadn’t even thought of its political implications and that was the exact connection my mind made, no ifs ands or buts. And yet aside from the camera shot, there really is no reason to make such connections. It’s really impressive actually. Yimou seriously knows his ambiguity.

Let’s forget about politics and just mention the film and an audience – my class. Even if everyone wasn’t making the intricate connections to Chinese history and Yimou’s skills, they were still captivated by the movie itself. When Fugui and his buddy stumble over a small hill to see what is making a loud rumbling sound, they see hundreds, maybe even thousands of troops rushing down upon them. You could hear everyone in the room (and it’s a big lecture hall) just go, “Oh #$@%” myself included. There were other times when we laughed, we didn’t cry, though there were a few parts where things seemed to be at an all time low. But the consensus the next day was that everyone really enjoyed the movie.



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