One tranquil evening in 1949 in the Chinese countryside, a group of traveling shadow puppeteers are putting on a performance when, suddenly, a bayonet slices through the screen on which the shadows are projected. The bayonet is attached to a rifle belonging to a soldier in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army, and before the night is over the puppeteers have been forced to become soldiers as well.
This quick and unexpected turn of events is just one of the many pivotal junctures in Zhang Yimou's extraordinarily observed To Live. Not too much later in the film, the lead puppeteer, Fugui (Ge You), awakens with a friend to a deserted army camp and, having heard that the Communist forces of Mao Zedong treat POWs well, they decide to find a Communist and surrender. As they stumble around, they discover a vast sea of bodies, corpses in blue and fatigue-green uniforms; it's a killing field that explains why the camp is empty. Before the two men can make sense of things, Fugui hears what sounds like an avalanche -- swarms of Communist foot soldiers on the march. Fugui and his friend are overcome with fear. Soon, however, that fear changes to hesitant pride as a Communist soldier discovers their shadow puppets, and in the soft gray of a winter's night, the puppeteers resume their puppet play for soldiers huddled close around a campfire.
This episode encapsulates what makes To Live one of the best Chinese films I've ever seen. Not only does it intertwine pathos with humor, it also humanizes history. To Live, which focuses on how an individual family is affected by the changes that occur over 30 years of a turbulent century, is thoroughly accessible -- and completely engrossing -- on all levels.
The film begins in the 1940s. Fugui, then the pampered son of a wealthy family, gambles away his fortune, despite pleas from his pregnant wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li), who finally takes their young daughter and leaves him. Devastated, Fugui resorts to a beggar's life. When Jiazhen returns months later, their new baby son in tow, he's rejuvenated, and asks the man to whom he lost his estate to stake him in business. Instead, the gaming rival gives him a box of shadow puppets as a way to earn a respectable living.
One of many tragicomic ironies in To Live is that when the Communist revolution comes, the house Fugui lost to his rival is burned by the Communists and the rival himself is executed. "It's good to be poor," Fugui numbly observes. "Nothing like it."
Over the decades, Fugui's family scrambles to survive as China lurches from one extreme to another. It's dumbfounding to realize one billion people lived their lives the way this family does. When the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s arrives, Fugui's daughter marries a committed Maoist; wedding presents are stacks of Mao propaganda. "Hold up your Little Red Books," says the beaming photographer. Later, when the daughter gives birth, she has to be treated by inept medical students because the "reactionary" doctors have been arrested. No matter how circumspect you are, the movie seems to say, there's no guarantee you'll escape disaster, and individual resiliency, not mass ideology, provides what comfort there is in life.
To Live resembles Zhang's last film, The Story of Qiu Ju, more than it does earlier ones such as Raise the Red Lantern in that the director concentrates on common folk instead of the privileged. Accordingly, the visual images are understatedly beautiful rather than strikingly sumptuous. The camera follows the action instead of dictating it; nothing is forced. But what really differentiates this movie from Zhang's others is its humane breadth. Gong Li, Zhang's longtime collaborator and an actress of uncommon loveliness, resonates with a quiet emotional strength that surpasses even the magnificent dignity of her past work; she's simply stunning. Ge You is even better as a wary survivor; he's so dazed and confused in his muddled attempts not to be "politically backward" that he breaks your heart.
All this family wants, as Gong Li's Jiazhen says, is "to live, to live a simple life." But as Fugui manipulates shadow puppets, history makes puppets of him and his family. Sentimental, sweeping, funny and incredibly sad, To Live was a big winner at Cannes last year and has gotten Zhang into big trouble with the Chinese government. On both accounts, it's no wonder.
Directed by Zhang Yimou. With Ge You and Gong Li.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.