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‘To Live’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1994

Zhang Yimou's "To Live" is a sweeping examination of the hardships endured by a Chinese family during the political upheavals following the communist revolution. At the film's opening, Fugui (Ge You) is so dissolute from a debauched life of drinking and gambling that he looks like a drug-ravaged rock star. Every night he goes to a club where, over the protests of his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li), and his father, the arrogant wastrel fritters away the family fortune, running up such a ledger of debts that, eventually, he is forced to sell off their ancestral home to pay them off.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of his troubles. After being tossed into the street, his pregnant wife leaves him, taking their daughter with her. Forced to work as a puppeteer to make money, Fugui soon finds himself a prisoner of the Nationalist army and, later, a member of the revolutionary forces. Rocked by his experiences, Fugui returns home determined to change his ways and become a respectable citizen. And when his wife comes back to him with their new son, Youqing, it looks as if he might actually get a second chance.

Having been forced out of the upper class, Fugui attempts to wipe out his past by becoming the perfect worker. But as Zhang pictures them, the political leaders in China are indifferent to individual happiness. Decade by decade through the various stages of communist development, Fugui and his family attempt to cope with the cruel winds of totalitarian fashion. And despite the countless tragedies, they manage to survive.

Zhang presents these events in an intimate manner that stresses the psychological over the political, and which is far lighter and more comedic than most movies on this subject. But some may feel that this tumultuous period has served as the backdrop to too many films in recent years, most recently in Tian Zhuangzhuang's "The Blue Kite." And Zhang's observations here aren't original enough to make us feel that we're being treated to fresh insights.

Though the movie is about resilience and survival, the most distinctive element of the film is the light-fingered touch for comedy that Zhang shows, especially in the scenes featuring little Youqing, whose beaming, open face is a joy to behold. The performances too are rich and complicated, and Zhang provides an illuminating window on everyday Chinese life. There are moments of great beauty and overwhelming pathos, and yet the film never strikes deep enough to reach our hearts. It's a good movie from a genuinely gifted filmmaker and no less worthy for not being great.

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