Sunday, November 7, 2010

To Live - Zhang Yimou

History books are bad at describing the emotions involved in historical processes. Happily, we have arts to discover a posteriori the impact of a given event on the people's day-to-day life. Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dickens' Oliver Twist or, more recently, Emir Kusturica's Underground, are but a few examples of how art can bridge the gap left by the rigor and discipline of History. Granted, art is neither objective nor accurate but, far from being a problem, the infinite possibilities offered by artistic creation presents a wide variety of perspectives on a given age.

Following the tradition of other masterpieces, Zhang Yimou's To Live describes the life of a Chinese couple between the late 1930s and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Fugui (Ge You) and Jiazhen (Gong Li) must find a to survive through the convoluted years of the Chinese Revolution and its aftermath. Originally a wealthy man, Fugui losses everything at a dice, so Jiazhen leaves him., just to come back when he becomes a honest merchant in the street. Fugui is then enrolled by force in the KMT army, rescued by the Red Army, and becomes the entertainer of his troupe. When he finally comes back to his hometown, he discovers that his wife survives selling water and has to maintain two children. And the story goes on for other thirty years (a comprehensive synopsis of the film is available here)

The movie is banned in China due to its critical portrayal of the Chinese government policies following the victory of Mao Zedong. Zhang Yimou was also banned from filmmaking for two years after the release of To Live, though he has been recently rehabilitated by the Chinese government -in addition to directing Hero, which portrays the idea of "one China", he co-directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Why and how Zhang came back to the grace of the Chinese Communist Party is a story to be written in the future...

By focusing on a quite long period of time (40 years), To Live presents an intergenerational perspective of the Chinese Revolution. There are four age cohorts involved in the movie. The first cohort is the one who died just before the Revolution and is represented by Fugui's parents. The second cohort is the one who lived its most productive years during the Revolution and is represented by Fugui and Jiazen. The third cohort is represented by Fugui's and Jiazhen's children and their son-in-law. My perception is that the movie focuses on how the Revolution ruined the life of this cohort -the two children die as a result of failed policies. It should not be seen as a surprise that To Live is banned in China: it is basically showing how the incompetence of the Communist Party destroyed one generation of Chinese. The fourth cohort is represented by "Little Bun" Fugui's and Jiazhen's grandson. Little Bun is the realization of a national dream of prosperity after a life of sacrifices (he is taken one picture every year, whereas Fugui and Jiazhen were never able of take a single picture of their children. But Little Bun is also the hope of a brighter future, "with planes and cars". It is interesting to compare the dialogue between Fugui and his child towards the middle of the movie with the dialogue between Fugui and Little Bun at the end of the movie. The fact that To Live was filmed in 1994, when China had experienced 15 years of capitalist expansion and nobody had realized it with the exception of the Chinese themselves, gives a special meaning to the references to material prosperity at the end of the movie. One final comment: the generation of Little Bun (meaning, the children who were born in the beginning of the 1970s ) is the one that is reaping the benefits of the most ambitious capitalist revolution in the history of humankind...

During the Mao years, China was either an enigma or even the image of evil itself for the Western spectator. The questions about China's past only grow as the generation who lived that process dies and as we realize that there are not many historical documents describing the process (part of the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to destroy everything that had to do with the past). To Live fills partially that gap and is only pitiful that it is banned in China.

To Live is available for free here.

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