Chinese history as survival in powerful 'To Live'

January 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The Chinese keep making the same film over and over again, but given their recent history, who could blame them?

Set against a theatrical background and directed by Chen Kaige, it was called "Farewell My Concubine"; set against the rural proletariat and directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang, it was "The Blue Kite"; now, set against the provincial working class, under the direction of the great Zhang ("The Red Lantern") Yimou, it's "To Live," which opens today at the Charles.

That's the name, and that's the theme. If in the 1930s you were invaded by Japan, in the 1940s you suffered a huge civil war, in the '50s a yoke of total oppression under the name the Great Leap Forward, and in the '60s subjected to cataclysmic reorganization of the Cultural Revolution under the Red Guards, then merely to live would indeed by a noble goal, not easily accomplished.

Zhang is a sensational filmmaker and particularly one who understands the power of the image. Thus his earlier work, particularly "The Red Lantern," was marked with a passionate pictorialism and usage of color. But here, he's cranked his visual imagination down to a scale appropriate with the banality of his everyday characters.

And they're characters, not heroes. No heroic act can be found in "To Live"; rather, it's a story of a hard-scrabble, dignity-free, small-potatoes family, ignorant of History and Politics and any force that should be capitalized, just trying . . . to live.

When first we meet him, in the '40s, Fugui is busy destroying his life. Lazy and self-indulgent, he's become an addicted gambler and, in a short spasm of delusionary self-destruction, he manages to lose the comfortable house he's inherited from his father. In a sense, it doesn't matter -- his wife Jiazhen (the great Gong Li of both "Farewell My Concubine" and "The Red Lantern") has already left him.

Soon Fugui is swept up in the great civil war, but his role is hardly great. He's turned into a menial laborer, first by the Nationalists and then by the Communists, the difference between which completely escapes him.

Zhang's view of war isn't exactly the stuff of office lobby murals. Though the historical depictions are huge in scale, they're mousy in content, displaying a chaotic, frozen, leaderless mess, in which poor Fugui and a friend, Chunsheng (Guo Tao), scurry about like rats.

In fact, only here does Zhang convey an idea with visual spectacle. When the last Nationalist is shot, a swollen tide of Communists swarms over the position, and Fugui and Chunsheng flee under the vanity that they are the object of the charge. But the charge reaches and passes them, leaving them in the dust. That's Zhang saying history is not for the little.

Returning to civilian life, Fugui finds that Jiazhen has found a job delivering hot water as society socializes. He reunites with her, and in these humble circumstances they attempt to survive. The one irony -- the man who won Fugui's house is executed as "a landlord." The movie records their point of view with complete accuracy and without irony. As various Maoist incantations come down, they respond as they think they should, accepting as literal truth such dictates as, "We must smelt more steel for the liberation of Taiwan."

But the truth of "To Live" is cost. Relentlessly, it shows how these people try desperately to play the game, and lose, lose, lose. They have two children; both, tragically and harrowingly, are consumed in the madness of a society trying to reinvent itself. Again, Zhang makes the point that it's not that the Party is conspiring against Fugui, Jiazhen and their children, it just thinks in larger terms -- and it's sloppy.

The deaths of the children are completely incidental to the process, mere accidents that are part of the consequence when a billion people are forced to change their ancient patterns in two decades. Indeed, one unit of Red Guards -- run by the man who ends up marrying Fugui's daughter Fengxia -- is portrayed as a surprisingly decent group of guys, more like a fraternity than a homicidal faction of crazed purifiers.

I would be lying if I didn't confess I prefer the stylistically refined, melodramatically charged Zhang to this earnest near- documentarian. And I would be lying if I didn't confess I prefer movies with heroes to movies with victims. Still, "To Live" is graphic and moving testimony to the stoicism of the millions who managed to do that and nothing else over the past half-century of life in China.

"To Live"

Starring Ge You and Gong Li

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Released by Samuel Goldwyn



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