Saturday, October 15, 2011

To Live

Qian recently rented a Chinese movie from the library at the school where she teaches. The movie she picked up was To Live (or 活着 in Chinese) by Zhang Yimou. Zhang is one of the most famous directors in China. In addition to making block-buster movies, Zhang also directed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. I had never heard of this movie and am honestly not too familiar with much of Zhang's work. I'm glad Qian got this randomly. To Live is a great film.

To Live is the story of a northern Chinese family and the events that unfolded in their lives in the middle part of the twentieth century. The 1940s through 1970s were a very turbulent time in China. Watching the main character, Fu Gui, go from being forced into the Nationalist Army to being forced into the Communist Red Army to taking part in campaigns against land owners in the 1950s to smelting iron during the Great Leap Forward to being surrounded by Mao-fanaticism in the 1960s and 1970s is a fascinating journey.

Fu Gui early in the movie is a spoiled brat from a rich family. He spends more time losing money gambling than with his wife and young daughter. After Fu loses his home and all of his inherited riches gambling, his pregnant-with-his-second-child wife leaves with him and takes their daughter with her.

Fu, having been left by his family and having lost all his money, has to restart his life. He does the only thing he knows how to do besides gamble - he plays the ruan and sings Shaanxi-style opera (秦腔) for traditional Chinese shadow plays with a troupe that tours surrounding villages.

These shadow plays and Fu Gui's singing and strumming at them are scattered throughout the movie. Shadow plays are a very unique Chinese form of entertainment. Shadow play scenes were a very nice addition to the movie.

Fu Gui, after having hit rock bottom, rebuilds his life. He reunites with his wife and kids after a few years away from them.

The family, once reunited, lives a decent enough life. Well, as decent as life could be in 1950's China.

Fu and his wife are level-headed, non-political people. This, unfortunately, couldn't keep them away from the chaos that Mao threw his country into. Mao's ideas of "constant revolution" and their implementation in society affected every Chinese person on a very deep level.

Fu and his family are witness to land-owners and the rich of society being attacked in the mid-1950s. Scenes of the Great Leap Forward, when Mao ordered China's agriculture collectivized in an attempt to "overtake" Britain and the US, then grip Fu and his family beginning in 1958. The town's leaders seize the family's pots and pans and the family has to eat at communal kitchens during that campaign. Many scenes take place next to burning backyard furnaces attempting to produce steel. The family doesn't suffer famine at all, at least. Much of the country did. As many as 35 million people died during the three year-long famine.

The psychosis of the Cultural Revolution, when students beat up their teachers and red guards destroyed temples and relics of ancient Chinese culture (among other things), is also featured very prominently in To Live.

Fu and his family are affected brutally during these horrific campaigns. There is never any criticism of Mao and the horrors that his policies caused by the main characters in the movie. The family, despite facing unimaginable man-made, politician-induced challenges, just plows on. There is never any complaining or lamenting about the hand that they'd been dealt.

In a way, I really admire Fu and his family for that. They continue, as the movie is called, to live despite the terrible atmosphere that surrounded them. In another sense, though, there were many points where continuing to roll with the punches and not making any protest about the things going on in society was, one could say, too passive of a stance.

I suppose it's easy for me, living in a free society after the fact, to be an arm-chair quarterback and say that they were too timid in the face of wretched political upheaval. I also understand what the fate was of people who resisted Mao's policies: they were murdered. It's true that it was nearly impossible to go against any of Mao's campaigns without being killed or at least jailed. But Fu and his family's lack of protesting and essentially going along with all of that degradation of society is a remarkable aspect of the movie.

I really enjoyed To Live. I had no expectations going into it and was moved by what I saw. Zhang created this movie in China in 1994. It's not the edgiest thing ever made. It's edgier than you might think, though. That SARFT - The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television - would've been OK with this film five years after Tiananmen Square occurred during a particularly rocky patch for the CCP is somewhat surprising. I heartily recommend To Live to anyone interested in seeing contemporary Chinese history from a Chinese perspective.

Edit: Be sure to check out the first comment on this post from Hopfrog. He gives a fantastic primer to non-kung fu Chinese film.