May 22, 2013 Leave a comment
To Live is certainly an epic in the sense that it presents a story spanning decades (and filling well over two hours) with at least an eye toward major historical shifts in Chinese culture. Yet for all this scale, it is a fairly small, and fairly mundane story. It would certainly be wrong to say that nothing happens, indeed it is a rather turbulent life for Fugui (You Ge) and Jiazhen (Li Gong). But somehow the film presents all this on a fairly muted emotional spectrum that makes it feel less dramatic than it actually is.
When the film starts, Fugui is the son of a wealthy family but is quickly wasting away this status due to a gambling addiction that is also putting strain on his marriage. However, this destitution comes just in time for the arrival of the communists to take over. In this case, this large scale change in society ends up minimizing the upheaval in the lives of these individuals. In this way the film plays out this interaction of social change, fate and the dominant place of family. Arguably capitalism was the first cause of strife for this family but when the first major tragedy strikes, it is the result of Fugui’s commitment to at least appearing a diligent revolutionary. And while the policies of Mao led to the conditions that caused the second major tragedy in the film, there is a certain shade of greedy capitalism that plays in as well. In this way Fugui’s commitment to family and the varying political strategies he engages to protect them all take a back seat to fate.
This is kind of the problem with the film, the thing that makes it seem less dramatic. Fate just isn’t a very interesting reason for events to happen, being arbitrary and outside the control of our characters. As a commentary on Chinese history, this feels distinctly weak. Still, Zhang is a craftsman and the film is at least undeniably well made. What lifted the film a bit for me was the incorporation of shadow puppets and a sub-plot involving the value of that traditional method of storytelling. Whereas Hakuchi seems to write off the arts as interfering with human interaction, To Live warns against focusing only on the material concerns. Having seen a few other compelling works involving shadow puppets, this was enough for me.