To Live

World Premiere | Out Of Competition | Restored Classics | Tribute to ZHANG Yimou


Guest stars:
ZHANG Yimou, director
CHIU Fu-sheng, producer


The films that made Zhang Yimou the world’s most famous Chinese filmmaker – particularly Ju Dou (1989) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) – feature daring protagonists challenging rigid societal structures, but Zhang’s 1993 drama To Live centers on unremarkable people reacting passively to the world around them. Fittingly, To Live is less visually striking than Zhang’s previous celebrated films; the director’s intoxicating colors and vivid symbolism are largely absent here, replaced by natural hues and grubby realism.

But hidden beneath this unassuming exterior is perhaps Zhang’s most timeless and rewarding work.

Based on a novel by Yu Hua, To Live chronicles four generations of the Xu family as they evolve from bourgeois landowners, to Communist proletariat, to Cultural Revolution eyewitnesses, and finally to a patchwork family looking to the future. In the 1940s, feckless Xu patriarch Fugui (Ge You) recklessly gambles away his family’s ancestral home, alienating his parents and driving away pregnant wife Jiazhen (the peerless Gong Li) and young daughter Fengxia. Fugui turns to performing shadow puppetry to earn a living, before being swept off to the Chinese Civil War.

Eventually he reunites with Jiazhen, now raising their son Youqing alongside Fengxia, but there is loss: Fengxia fell ill, and is now deaf and mute. This sad turn is echoed multiple times in To Live; the film is separated into distinct sections portraying key periods of 20th century Chinese history, and each section ends on a tragic and frequently ironic note. This structure serves as the film’s tension, creating engagement. The pace is languid and the tone is gentle and humorous, but the growing expectation of a tragic twist gives the film momentum.

Antagonists arise for the Xu family, but ironically few really qualify as enemies. While Fugui loses his property to the conniving Long’er (Ni Dahong), afterwards Long’er gives him the shadow puppets that would become his career. Also ironic: Fugui’s sudden poverty becomes a blessing when Long’er is branded a capitalist – a fate that could have been Fugui’s had he retained his property. Similarly, seemingly innocuous choices by Fugui have dire consequences. With different handling, these moments could play as grand tragedy, but given Zhang Yimou’s realistic direction and dry humor, these moments feel like natural if ironic outcomes.

Zhang Yimou is intimately familiar with the Cultural Revolution, having lived his youth during the period, and shows a sharper wit when observing the day-to-day activities of the Xu family adjusting to China’s brave new world. These periods are more than settings; the events in each period actively reflect the hardships and contradictions experienced by the Chinese people, frequently to humorous and tragic effect. There is obvious commentary here, but the connections are drawn by the audience and not really the film, as the audience is the one viewing the events with history as perspective, where the film doesn’t openly acknowledge this bigger picture.

To Live ends on a somber but hopeful note, as the Xu family mourns departed family members while Fugui states, “...and life will get better and better.” This positivity is seen by some observers as the film’s prevailing theme: the resilience and hope of people facing difficult times. With a rosy view of China’s later history, e.g., its rise from poverty and growing international power, one could even take Fugui’s words to be prescient. At the same time, if one thinks that life in China did not get better, Fugui’s hope for a better tomorrow could be seen as dark commentary, and his family’s cycle of endless tragedy as bitter metaphor. Art is elusive, and To Live can seemingly be defined by whatever an audience member brings to it. This mutable, timeless quality is perhaps its greatest achievement.

Ross Chen
Film director: ZHANG Yimou
Year: 1994
Running time: 132'
Country: China
02/05 - 7:30 PM
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
02-05-2024 19:30 02-05-2024 21:42Europe/Rome To Live Far East Film Festival Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da UdineCEC Udine