Foreign Film Review

Film Review: "To Live" (1994)

To Live" (1994) begins with a searing image -- a man loses everything because of his compulsive gambling. He is forced to sell off his ancestral home to pay his debts, and brings shame upon his family. This is only the beginning of a tale where everything traditional about China and tradition will be eradicated before the viewer's eyes. However, if this were a conventional, American TV movie-of-the-week, the movie would be a tale of the evils of compulsive gambling and its effects upon the family and the individual's character. Yet this addiction ultimately saves Xu Fugui and his entire family. When the communists come to power in China, the rich as a class are deemed evil and the poor are good, thus the man who profited from Fugui's losses is destroyed. The now poor Xu Fugui lives with the blessings of the authorities. Both he and his distraught wife had to take jobs to support the family when he lost his money but this eventually saved their economic fortunes during the era of Mao, even after they were separated from one another -- now they are part of the working class, not the hated aristocracy or the Nationalists.

However, communism is only the beginning of the changes and struggles the couple will face. "All I ask is a quiet life together," says Xu Jiazhen, but a quiet life never comes. Instead, episode after episode piles upon the family's head, although to their credit and the credit of the family they seem able to weather every storm. Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen do not proclaim their survival as a triumph of the human spirit; however, rather they seem to regard all of their actions as necessities -- to live, as memorialized in the title of the film and also in Fugui's own words. To live, people will do everything -- sometimes moral, as when Fugui tries to live according to the austere dictates of Mao after he gives up gambling and the communists come to power, and sometimes not.

Over and over, the arbitrary nature of fate is stressed in "To Live." There is no moral center -- the decadent life of the aristocrats eradicated by Mao is corrupt, but so are Mao's bureaucrats. The life before Mao is riddled with immorality and death, and civil war leaves death and destruction in its wake, but the Cultural Revolution's eradication of knowledge and intellectual life results in the death of the protagonist's pregnant daughter. There is no single, central ideology that is validated by the narrative of the film. Thus, despite the fact that it was banned in the China whose history and revolution it chronicles over the course of its sprawling narrative reach, "To Live" has an ethos entirely opposed to capitalist, American values and the concept that rewards come to those who work hard. "To Live" suggests that human beings are the playthings of the gods and political forces and there is no inherently good moral value that provides protection from evil. Only the life of individual human beings are 'good,' ideology is cruel and empty and does not encapsulate the realities of human existence and personal, human needs.

It is true that at first communism might seem 'good' as ironically, the communist revolution does purify Xu Fugui of his poisonous addiction, humbling him in a world that refuses to valorize money. The communists reunite him with his wife, Xu Jiazhen. Jiazhen's judgmental gaze at the beginning of the film, upon learning of the devastating nature of his gambling losses to the family fortune might initially indicate that the husband and wife could never reconcile. Fugui's father beats his son learning upon his evil actions, calling him "turtle spawn," and after being born to a life of privilege, Fugui is reduced to selling needles and thread in the street, a pauper. Yet even the wealthy show compassion, contrary to Maoist assumptions -- the man who now lived in house takes pity on Fugui when he sees him in the street and…