Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994) makes no attempt to romanticize the past. The film tells the incredible journey of a Chinese family from horrific civil war in the 1940s to the tragic mistakes of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. It tells this story matter-of-factly without unneeded garnish and allows the main couple, Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) and Fugui (the talented Ge Yo), to display for themselves the depths of human emotion and spirit.
The film is very fatalistic. Characters’ lives are controlled largely by external forces beyond their control. Nothing symbolizes this better than the unexpected thrust of a threatening bayonet s blade into the front flap of Fugui’s traveling puppet troupe’s tent. As a defense against the sorrows of the past, characters bury their past. Neither Fugui nor the town cadre Niu ever speak of it, but Zhang forces his audience to confront it with his film.
Despite the film’s predominant sadness, To Live is occasionally refreshingly light-hearted and humorous. Ge Yo busts out his trademark pseudo-dumb yet satirical attitude when he talks to the village cadre Niu. The cadre tells Fugui about Long’er’s impending struggle session as a result of his attempt to commit “counter-revolutionary sabotage” by burning down Fugui’s former ancestral house. “It burned for many days and many nights,” remarks Niu. “Your family’s timber was excellen .” Fugui pauses with a dumbfounded look on his face. “It’s not our timber. It’s counter revolutionary timber,” he responds.
The essential message of To Live is that of its title. Zhang has used the turbulent decades from 1940 to 1970 to reveal common individuals’ remarkable drive and strength to survive. “I know it is hard for you right now, but you must endure, you must bear it,” urges Fugui to a despondent Chunsheng on the verge of suicide. “Chunsheng, remember, you still owe our family a life. You must live well,” yells Jiazhen to the fallen district chief as he disappears into the night.
It is significant that the second time Fugui tells the story of the metamorphosing chickens the story does not end with the ox representing communism and a better life. “And after the cow?” asks his grandson Mantou (literally “steamed bun”). “After the cow…” Fugui pauses and turns to look at his wife. “After the cow, Mantou will have grown up,” says Jiazhen. “I want to ride on the cow’s back,” says Mantou. But this time Fugui’s faith in communism is gone. “When Mantou grows up he won t ride on the cow’s back but will ride trains and planes. At that time, life will get better and better.”