This is one of several movie suggestions written by students in the Chinese-Language Cinemas class of Winter 2019 (CHIN 3050/FILM 3350). For this “Playlist Project,” students looked for a film of interest not seen in class, watched and researched it, and wrote up their recommendation. More viewing suggestions will be posted each day leading up to the beginning of the new term.
Review Written by Tyler van de Ven
I highly recommend seeing Zhang Yimou’s film To Live. The film is set in the period spanning 1940s to the 1970s, covering the end of nationalist rule to the end of the Cultural Revolution. The subject of the film is a man named Xu Fugui, played by Ge You – a nobody. The film gets its namesake as it documents Fugui’s and the surrounding cast’s trials and tribulations to stay alive through this period. The film was banned in mainland China by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (国家广播电视总局) for its portrayal of the Communist Party. According to a 1994 article in Screen International, a film-making ban was also imposed upon Zhang for two years. The film remained banned until 2008 when Zhang Yimou directed the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.1 By this time, the Chinese government had declared he had been fully “rehabilitated”. Despite the troubles at home, the film was received internationally with acclaim and was runner up for the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, losing to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. So why do I think you should see it? Firstly, its accurate portrayal of historical events makes it an important example of Chinese 5th Generation film. Secondly, I believe that it is an enjoyable film by its own merits, aside from political messages.
To Live shares a similar timeframe and setting with Chen Kaige’s (陈凯歌) Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬). Unlike To Live, Farewell My Concubine won the Palme d’Or in 1993, and as a result of the international acclaim and the pressure of outcry from overseas, the film had its ban lifted and a modified version (toning down and censoring the homosexuality, violence and suicide) was released to mainland theatres. As stated earlier, To Live remained banned and Zhang faced immense opposition from the Chinese government until 2008. As Liang Shi states, while the film did still receive a nomination for the Palme d’Or in 1994, it ended up being largely ignored compared to Farewell My Concubine or even Zhang’s previous successes, Red Sorghum (红高粱) (1987), Ju Dou (菊豆) (1990), and Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) (1991). He claims the reason is three-fold.2 Firstly, Chinese film of the 5th Generation directors (the first wave of directors who graduated from film school to which both Zhang and Chen belong) is loosely defined as being very experimental, avant-garde, and usually are rife with social criticism. While To Live certainly has the socio-political criticism, and certainly has the budget and big-name actors of a 5th Generation film, it is said to not do anything new or revolutionary in terms of cinematography (which I will not go into because I know nothing of cinematography). Secondly, Liang points out that after Farewell My Concubine, the world was growing tired of 5th Generation cinema, and To Live is the last 5th Generation film to win a major international award (it received the Grand Prix at Cannes, the second highest honour next to the Palme d’Or). I personally find this ridiculous, as I believe it discredits film to disregard something because it is no longer “in vogue”. Finally, also as an extension of the first reason, the film was overshadowed by Farewell My Concubine, which could be seen as having the same commentary, but with far more flair, colour and intrigue. While it is true that To Live is certainly more down to earth than Farewell My Concubine, I will discuss later why I believe this to act in the film’s favour. Now that I have covered the context and the more objective points of the film, I will now go over why I personally find it to be an excellent film.
I largely enjoyed this film for how real it felt, compared to those seen in other films we watched this semester. As stated before, it does not have the same flair and intrigue as Farewell My Concubine; however, I find the lack of flashy cinematography, intrigue, and overall flair helps the film feel more relatable. Both are fantastic films, don’t get me wrong, but Farewell My Concubine feels much more like a stage production, and its focus on the bourgeois makes it difficult to put oneself in the character’s shoes. As To Live follows a cast of characters that are supposed to represent the average people, it makes the whole film feel real, like you’re there with them as opposed to watching a production. The film also weaves light-hearted moments into the tragic moments which sets it apart from a film like The Boat People which feels like it is constantly punching you to drive its point home. In this, it also becomes more relatable, as in the real world, things tend to not be so black and white. It also does not feel like it is trying to push a political agenda, as is the case with films like The Boat People (投奔怒海) and Red Detachment of Women ( 红色娘子军). It is there to tell a story that has ups and downs, characters aren’t defined by their political agendas (there is one character who is a Red Guard who is quite likeable as well as a Communist Party devotee who portrayed quite positively) and it all makes the film feel more real. The characters (of the main cast at least) are a reason I personally enjoyed this film as they act and think in a very human way. They all have their assets and flaws, and act in believable ways. Whereas Red Detachment sells caricatures meant to serve and emphasize specific goals, To Live has far more depth of character. As Yimou puts it:
I believe that for a long time now Chinese films have been too abstract, conceptual, gimmicky. They don’t relate at all to the lives of ordinary Chinese people. I’m certain that most audiences will like this film. We haven’t gone overboard on the tragic elements, but rather have focused on the minute, amusing details in the life of a nobody. There are tears and laughter, one following the other in a gentle rhythm like the breath of a bellows.3 -Zhang Yimou
The film is not trying to exaggerate and emphasize positivity or negativity. The film is not there to demonize the Communist anymore than a history book would. It shows things as they were without giving its opinions. The film simply is there to humbly tell its tale, without attaching a myriad of bells and whistles to garner attention. It is simply a story of an ordinary Joe’s journey through time, and I believe it has charm in its simple complexities.
Works Cited/Further Reading
- Frater, Patrick “China bars Yimou while welcoming Warner Bros.” Screen International. Sept 1994: 1. Print.
- Liang Shi “The Daoist Cosmic Discourse in Zhang Yimou’s To Live.” Film Criticism Vol. 24 Issue 2 (1999/2000): 2-16. Print.
- I could not track the original quote to its primary source, it has been cited in numerous works. This is a secondary source: Wang Rujie “’To Live’ Beyond Good and Evil.” Asian Cinema 12 (2001): 74-90.
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