A family drama set across 30 years of modern Chinese history, Zhang Yimou’s To Live is a well-crafted but in no way earth-shaking entry in the helmer’s oeuvre, topped by finely judged perfs by Gong Li and Ge You as an average couple tossed like corks in a story by civil war, revolution and political strife.
Story, pruned down from a long novel by new wave writer Yu Hua, opens in the ’40s in a small village in northern China. Fugui (Ge), eldest son of a prominent family, is hooked on gambling. Wife Jiazhen (Gong) leaves him when Fugui loses the ancestral home to a local smoothie, but she returns.
In the second of the movie’s five segments, Fugui is a soldier in the Nationalist (KMT) army fighting the Communists in the late-’40s civil war alongside his buddy Chunsheng (Guo Tao). Postwar, Fugui returns to his now-communized native village. Next jump is to 1958 and the so-called Great Leap Forward, with the whole population mobilized to supply iron for mass industrialization.
Flash forward to 1966, start of the Cultural Revolution, and town chief (Niu Ben) introduces a prospective husband to Fugui’s grown daughter (Liu Tianchi, strong in a wordless part). After the 90-minute mark, the movie starts to develop true clout with the news that Fugui’s buddy Chunsheng has been branded a ‘capitalist roadster.’
By adopting a relatively cool photographic look and distanced shooting style, Zhang rarely develops a head of steam to roll the story over the political and social changes that impinge on the characters. For the first time in a Zhang movie, Gong plays second fiddle to a strong, accomplished actor.