China. Ancient land of mystery. The place that lends us money and takes away our manufacturing jobs. The place recently most certainly did not celebrate the 29th anniversary of…something…ahem ahem. The place where Winnie the Pooh and Peppa Pig are nowhere to be seen. And, apparently, you nutcases cannot eat food supposedly from there without getting hungry 30-minutes later. What’s the matter with y’all? Seriously. Anyways, it is also the land of Zhang Yimou.
You may know Zhang Yimou from his scaring the hell out of you during the Beijing Olympics back in 2008. Or maybe you know him from the film Hero with Jet Li in 2002. Or maybe you know him for angering many fellow Chinese a few years ago after it came to light that he had fathered seven children with multiple women without much suffering much consequence from China’s One-Child Policy before it was expanded to a grand total of Two. Before all that that, however, he was known to work frequently with another Li: Gong Li. He was also known to make films about China that were somewhat critical of the Chinese government, if only indirectly. This resulted in many of the films being banned in China, at least temporarily. Additionally, Zhang was sometimes accused by…I forget…of peddling Orientalism for Western audiences at the expense of Chinese audiences. Eh, whatever. It would be difficult to tell what Chinese audiences thought of the movies at the time when they were forbidden from watching his movies until years after Chinese sensibilities evolved. I guess that he started making up for that by making Hero, and Hollywood would eventually follow suit for better or worse. In any case am going to focus on a movie that he made eight years earlier; one that tells the story of one family trying to live in Communist China. The film is called, simply, To Live. Now, be warned; I spoil pretty much the first half of the film, but I try to avoid spoiling the rest of it.
Yep. There is Gong Li.
Free on Youtube. Approximately 132 minutes.
Xu Fugui and and his wife Jiazhen are a well-to do couple with a young daughter and a baby boy on the way. Fugui, however, has a major gambling problem, and has been losing much of his money to shadow puppet troupe leader Long’er. His aging father scolds him, despite also having had a reputation for gambling money away. Jiazhen is upset that Fugui had broken his promise to stop gambling if she got pregnant. He promises to stop gambling, but is back gambling the night afterwards. Jiazhen comes to the gambling hall and begs him to return home, but he shoos her away and continues gambling until he completely runs out of money and is forced to give up his house to Long’er. Jiazhen, who had been waiting outside the gambling hall until he got out, tells him that she is taking their daughter Fengxia and going back to her parents. The next day, after Fugui’s father signs the family home over to Long’er, he lashes out at Fugui and dies, apparently from a broken heart…and a broken everything else.
About a year later, Jiazhen returns with Fengxia and a baby boy, named Youqing. Fugui and his mother have been living in a much smaller place, paying the rent with what little they have left. Fugui has to go to Long’er to borrow money to set up shop. Long’er is loathe to lend money, but lends Fugui his box of shadow puppets and tells him to start a troupe. So Fugui and about five other guys travel around, doing shows for people while Jiazhen takes care of his mother and the children. One of these shows, however, is interrupted by troops, who force Fugui and his troupe to take part in the Chinese Civil war, a few months before the Communist victory.
Eventually, Fugui is able to return home, a humble participant of the war. His mother died when he was away and Fengxia was struck with an illness that left her hard of hearing and unable to speak. But, coincidentally enough, Fugui returns the night before Long’er, who had refused to turn over part of Fugui’s former house to the government, is scheduled to be executed. With his status as a Communist soldier made official on a fragile (and almost accidentally destroyed) piece of paper and his former status as a landlord long-since abandoned, Fugui’s luck and that of his family has changed for the better. As is already made clear, that luck is fragile and comes with a major price. In the decades to come, as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution make their mark upon China, the Xu family struggles to maneuver its way through hard times and tragedy.
Okay, I have given away enough of the story already, so I will stop that now. I will try to touch upon the themes of the movie. The main one, of course, comes with the title. The Xu family is just trying to find a way to live through the struggles of living in China. The story is primarily about Fugui and Jiazhen sticking together throughout both the rough patches in their marriage and the rougher patches during China’s revolution, as well as the chaos that sweeps through the country during the early decades of the People’s Republic. If there is a moral to the movie, it is to value life, your own and others, even during the most hopeless of times. Through grief, there is humanity. In misery, there is hope of a better future. There is confusion. There is hatred. There is temptation. There is upheaval. There is misunderstanding. There is misery. There is suffering. There is brutal death. But no matter what, there is laughter, love, and life. And if simply living is all that you can do, then please live. Please.
The box of shadow puppets plays a big role in the story. The puppets save Fugui’s life, serve as a reminder of what was lost, and become a way of making do when nothing else works. The box and puppets are present during almost every important moment in his life. There is music that goes along with the puppet show and…it takes some getting used to. The singing is rough and the music can be a bit harsh on the ears. If you can tolerate the first few minutes, you might actually learn to enjoy it. I found that I even missed it after the music got replaced with more modern-sounding Communist marching songs. It is ironic, and perhaps deliberately so, that while music saves Fugui multiple times during the time of the Communists, Fengxia loses her ability to speak around the time that the Communists take control of China. She may be all smiles, but she cannot speak her mind. It is a metaphor for…something. And like in many Asian movies, control over their own lives is something that these ordinary people never ever really had and can never really hope to have. They can hope only to live.
Pretty much all of Zhang’s movies, both early and more recent, can be looked at politically. And they have been. While many of his movies have been seen as a commentary on the Chinese Communist Party, many supposedly do so only indirectly. This movie is more direct. People have debated whether the movie is anti-Communist, anti-Mao, or neither. Indeed, To Live does not portray the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in a particularly positive light. That said, it does not go nearly as far as it could have if it were meant to be an explicit indictment, specifically involving the Great Leap Forward. Tragedies that strike the Xu family can be blamed on Mao’s policies, but there is just enough wiggle room to lay the blame on individuals trying to do their own thing. The family continues to follow the Party even after everything that has happened to them and people whom they know. This is through a mixture of optimism that things will be okay, fear of what happens if they resist, and acceptance of the way things are. There are small acts of rebellion, but they are small, and mostly through petty subversion rather than confrontation or sabotage. There are many good people within the PRC leadership, sometimes misguided, but good nonetheless.
Sidenote: Zhang and Gong Li would return to the subject of The Cultural Revolution almost 20 years to the day after the release of this movie with Coming Home. It’s…eh…
This movie was based on the novel of the same name. Apparently, the movie held back quite a bit in comparison to the book. Sometimes it did seem like the movie held back in certain areas, so it might be interesting to see how the book handled such major moments in modern Chinese history. Actually, when reading the synopsis for the book, I got scared of reading it, as it came across as more gallows humor than anything else. While I have no doubt that the book is good, and maybe even better than the movie, I get the impression that I would have emotionally checked out pretty soon if the movie had followed the book more closely. I might get around to reading the book at some point. For now, though, I have the movie. And, as it is, it is a really good one.
WTF ASIA 9: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (India: 1998, approx. 185 minutes)
Available on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 10: Seven Samurai (Japan: 1954, approx. 207 minutes)