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Charlie Hore


History happens

(October 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To Live
Dir: Zhang Yimou

To Live marks a significant departure from recent Chinese cinema. It’s a folksy, often funny and unashamedly melodramatic story of a family’s life across four decades, surviving everything that life throws at them.

Fugui, the father, is a perennial loser wandering through the film with a permanently bewildered look on his face. The son of a landlord family, he loses the family home gambling, becomes leader of a puppet show troupe, and is drafted by the nationalist army during the Civil War.

He’s then captured by the Red Army after the rest of his unit has run away. The contrast between the two armies is all the more stark for being understated, and these early scenes give a vivid insight into why Mao’s victory in 1949 was welcomed by the vast majority of Chinese.

But they also show the limits of that victory. Both before and after 1949 history is something that happens to the family, never something that they make. The relationship between Fugui and his wife, Jiazheng, becomes ever closer as one hardship follows another, and is the one constant in an increasingly bewildering world.

Most of the film is told in three episodes set in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The overall message is familiar enough – things were bad in the 1950s, got worse in the 1960s, and improved after Mao died in the late 1970s. But the film brings a fresh and unexpected perspective on each period. This is partly done through a close attention to the detail of everyday life in each period, particularly food and clothing.

Mainly, however, it highlights the unexpected events that flowed from each period. During the Cultural Revolution scenes, for instance, Fugui and Jiazheng are out shopping one day when a neighbour tells them that the Red Guards have arrived at their house. They rush home fearing the worst.

What they find is their daughter’s suitor and his friends decorating the house! No Chinese film director, to my knowledge, has ever tried before to show the horrors of the Cultural Revolution through farce, but it works brilliantly. And the final tragedy is all the more shocking for the comic scenes that have preceded it.

On the surface the film’s theme is nothing more than the survival of the human spirit against adversity. All the family want is to live in peace. In other hands this could have been unbearably trite, but Zhang Yimou’s genius is to draw you deeply into the lives of his characters.

Yet underneath the resignation and the happy ending there’s a deeper, more radical, message – people shouldn’t have to live like this. This deceptively innocent film gives a marvellous insight both into how people survived the years of Mao’s power, and into the deep wells of anger that built up during those years.

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