As usual, filmmaker Zhang Yimou is in hot water with the Chinese authorities--the kind of people who think freedom of expression means picking your own appetizer off the lunch menu. Zhang's latest film, To Live, is a family epic that just happens to trace the agonies and ironies of the country's recent political history. For that reason, China's thought police have stopped the director's next movie and barred him from working on foreign co-productions. What will they do now? Ban ping-pong?
Inevitably, To Live is being compared with last year's art-house hit, Farewell, My Concubine, but it's not nearly so glitzy or mannered. In fact, Zhang has managed to transplant the intense, intimate style of his previous successes, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju, to a larger melodrama without missing a beat. He shows us the brutal farce of the Great Leap Forward, for instance, but he never loses sight of the individual victim, forced to lie about his past while dutifully melting down the family pots and pans for the greater glory of Maoism.
Covering three decades of history, the film opens in a gambling house in the prerevolutionary 1940s, where a skinny, driven man named Fugui (Ge You) is busy squandering the family fortune despite his wife's pleas to stop. As fate would have it, it is the greedy fellow who takes over Fugui's house who eventually suffers: The Communists execute the foul landowner as a traitor to the revolution.
Life is more complicated for Fugui, his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li, Zhang Yimou's constant inspiration), and their two children. Political correctness, Chinese-style, is such a bewildering, changeable business that the family never quite knows what it should be saying (or thinking) to friends and strangers in order to survive the death squad of the moment. While loyalties and conventions shift with appalling (and, by now, familiar) speed, Fugui becomes a desperate equivocator in the name of love. When the Reds burn his house down, he thinks of personal welfare. "That wasn't my family's timber," he explains, "that was counterrevolutionary timber."
Even at that, it's hard to keep up with the whims of officialdom. A bureaucrat's blunder--and a father's fear--even take the life of a child.
Nonetheless, there's some black comedy in Zhang's treatment of Chinese history. When the disenfranchised Fugui hits the road with his shadow-puppet show, he stumbles into mid-battle, winds up performing for both the Nationalists and the Communists and is mistakenly sent home a war hero. When his tiny son throws a bowl of noodles on another kid in a communal dining hall, Dad must pull out the stops to avert a major political incident.
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The dominant tones, though, are tragedy and optimism. Fugui and Jiazhen suffer horrendous setbacks, but they cling to his story of chicks turning into geese, then into sheep, then into oxen--the paradigm of social progress. Still, by the time we reach the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Zhang reveals that grand fraud in strokes large and small. None is so affecting as a memorable hospital scene that seems to summarize the follies of totalitarian "thought."
Because the government has purged all the reactionary doctors, the only help available when a childbirth emergency erupts is a cadre of sullen nurse-trainees, who can recite the Little Red Book but have trouble boiling water. Once again, the individual pays the price for collectivist theory. Clearly, Zhang Yimou is paying that price himself. In September the People's Republic imposed a work ban on the director for illegally distributing To Live. He may not collaborate with foreign investors for two years, and neither he nor his leading lady, Gong Li, may discuss the film with anyone. Like his previous works, To Live may never be shown in China.
In other words, plus ca change...