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.


Anonymous said...

One of my passions in life is cinema. I'll quickly note that I've seen thousands of films from all countries and eras. Many old and obscure. Chinese films rank on equal footing with the best that the US and Europe have to offer. A quick mention also for Taiwanese film as well, there are so many brilliant films coming out of Taiwan.

Zhang Yimou is mainly known for his epic action films that are visually stunning with an amazing use of the color palette. However, what Zhang Yimou does best in my opinion, and what Chinese filmmakers in general do best, is tell a human story. If you liked To Live, or if anyone out there has an interest in watching some good Chinese films, let me recommend some of the better ones.

I'm not a particular fan of the Hong Kong kung fu flicks, and find much of the action in Zhang's flicks like House of Flying Daggers to be ridiculous, even though they are visually amazing, so these recommendations are not 'action films'. I think most westerners associate Chinese film with 'action', but let me tell you, there is a depth and quality to Chinese human stories that would surprise anyone who has not dabbled in some of the lesser known films.

Some more Zhang Yimou flicks:

The Story of Qiu Ju: When I first viewed this flick I was floored at how it put you smack dab in the streets of China as they were 20 years ago. How did he get all these people to not stare at the camera? Chinese love to stare at stuff like that. I found out he used hidden cameras to make those street scenes, and wow, that alone made me appreciate the brilliance of Zhang. The film, that many who don't have an interest in China may find bland, also provides an incredible glimpse into guanxi and village politics.

The Road Home: Zhang Ziyi's film debut. Incredibly charming story that revolves around a tiny village and their little schoolhouse. A young man returns from the city to bury his father and learns the story of how his parents met.

Happy Times: A childless old man takes in a blind orphan girl. While the film can be very sad at times, it is filled with some incredible laughs. One of the funniest Chinese films I have seen and provides a glimpse into Chinese humor.

Some other great films from the Mainland:

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: I actually recommended this to you a couple of years back. The film has a really neat tie-in to the flooding of the 3 Gorges, and the ending is one of the coolest things I've seen. Also an interesting look at re-education. I was floored by my wife's stories of being sent to work at a farm for the summer which was required by most schoolchildren in her generation. Later I kept seeing Zhou Xun popping up everywhere in Chinese films, and couldn't remember where I first saw her. She is brilliant in this.

Warm Spring: The most heart wrenching film I have seen in any format. One of my favorites. An unselfish old farmer has a secret which the village is reminded of when he takes in a runaway. The Chinese can sometimes be uncaring or even cruel to those that aren't blood relatives and this film pulls no punches with that. It also shows that this is not a universal truth in the culture.

Postmen in the Mountains: Personally, my favorite Chinese film. Incredibly subtle, both visually and in story. A lot of people will find this film boring, but for those with patience and an appreciation of films which are true to life, you will be rewarded.

I could go on with quite a few more, but those are my personal favorites. You can type those titles into Wikipedia to get links and I think most are available from Netflix or Blockbuster.

AustinGuidry said...

Fantastic - I've been looking around for a good Chinese non-martial arts flick! Netflix's selection is pretty limited.

Thanks for posting, it's been a while!

Mark said...

@Hopfrog - Wow!! What a comment!

I made an edit to the end of my post to make sure people see what you wrote here.

I'm not a movie buff and am new to all of the movies you provided. I look forward to finding and watching these.

Thanks a lot for such a thoughtful comment!

@AustinGuidry - Like you, I look forward to watching these movies.

Thanks for the encouragement on this post. Other stuff has been getting in the way of my writing here recently. I have several book reviews to write (am continuing to read lots of China books) that I hope get written in the coming weeks.

Anonymous said...

Red Sorghum 红高粱, first film by zhang yimou. Winner of berlin film festival.

In the Heat of the Sun 阳光灿烂的日子 by jiang wen, one of the best Chinese movie from the 90’s.

Devils on the Doorstep 鬼子来了 another film by jiang wen, thought provoking, a new introspection on human nature.

Still Life 三峡好人 by jia zhangke

If you’re interested in documentaries, check out Delamu 茶马古道:德拉姆 by tian zhuangzhuang.

Rediscovering the Yangtze River 再说长江,

Anonymous said...

some of my personal favorite.

Anonymous said...

Excellent recommendations Anon. I hate to see such a quality contribution being done anonymously.

This might be going a bit into film nerdom, but I think anyone who appreciated what Chaplin did in The Great Dictator will appreciate Jiang Wen's film Devils on the Doorstep. A thought provoking film about the Japanese invasion that tackles it from a humurous perspective. A task many would think impossible, but alas, Chaplin pulled it off as well and sometimes such an odd approach can bring about a different perspective.

Jiang has also acted in a wide range of roles that I have enjoyed. Talented chap.

Anonymous said...

One more thing, since documentaries have been mentioned.

If there is one must see Chinese documentary I would recommend, it is Last Train Home.

It is unbelievable the lengths that people will go to in order to get back home for the Spring Festival, errr, Chinese New Year.

Mark said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for more great recommendations.

I really look forward to cracking into these lists that have been provided on these comments.

Hopfrog, I caught the last hour of "Last Train Home" on PBS a couple weeks ago. Good rec. I enjoyed that one a lot.

The scenes of mass humanity at the Guangzhou train station during the Spring Festival are unforgettable. As you say, the lengths that are required for people to get home at that time are unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

@Mark, Yeah it really shows you how much value is placed on the Spring Festival and reuniting with family. Could you imagine Americans standing for days on a crowded platform waiting on a train to get home for Xmas? Yeah, me either.

If you've not dabbled much into Chinese film, you are in for a real treat. The one's recommended by myself and Anon are a good starting point. If you enjoy these, I'm sure it will naturally lead you to many more. There are a lot of great Chinese films out there that aren't about magical green swords and gravity defying kung fu fighters. Enjoy.

Rod in China said...

New Chinese cinema doesn't seem to have much to offer, unless its from Taiwan or HongKong, but there are a few good movies out there. To Live is pretty old, but great. There's another great movie called Blind Mountain from the mainland that I would suggest you watch.

Vinod said...

I am a film buff and watch films from all languages that i can lay my hands on. I usually dont remember the film names but enjoy it while I watch it. Thanks everyone for sharing some great watchable recommendations. I dont enjoy the regular martial arts stuff i get to see on TV but i will now get cracking on these.

@ Mark - the art form of shadow play is not unique to China.It is very popular in India and very much alive in South India. Come to Pallassana , an obscure village in Palakkad district of Kerala state in South India and you can watch live performancs of this great art form conducted at Hindu temples here , every year in the winter months.

I thoroughly enjoy your blogs and am fascinated by your insights and passaion for China. I lived in Guangzhou with my wife for 3 years and travelled a little bit around the country and love it . I am back in Bangalore , India now and am a sworn Sinophile thanks to my stint in China and great reading in get on the net like yours that continue to increase my fascination for the Middle Kingdon.

pls drop in at and