×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

To Live; Chinese

(Mandarin Chinese dialogue)

With:
Fugui ... Ge You Jiazhen ... Gong Li Town Chief ...Niu Ben Chunsheng ... Guo Tao Erxi ... Jiang Wu Long'er ... Ni Dabong Fengxia, as an adult ... Liu Tianchi Youqing ... Deng Fei

(Mandarin Chinese dialogue)

Afamily 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 storm by civil war, revolution and political strife, the pic will draw core auds for quality Chinese fare but lacks the special smarts to go as far into the marketplace as showier items like “Farewell My Concubine.”

Given that a lot of the background is familiar from recent pix, like “Concubine” and “The Blue Kite,” Zhang’s movie could also run up against the problem of audience burnout on Chinese hops through 20th-century history. Good reviews and marketing will be crucial in overcoming such resistance.

Story, pruned down by Yu Hua and Lu Wei from a long novel by new wave writer Yu, 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 local smoothie Long’er (Ni Dabong), but she returns.

In the second of the movie’s five segments, Fugui is now a soldier in the Nationalist (KMT) army fighting the Communists in the late-’40s civil war alongside his buddy Chunsheng (Guo Tao). Pic opens out visually at this stage with several striking set pieces involving troop movements and mass carnage that matures the indolent main character.

Postwar, Fugui returns to his now-communized native village. In the first of several twists of fate, Long’er is executed as a capitalist. 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.” What will probably become the movie’s most-discussed sequence, for its meld of drama and black comedy, is Fugui’s daughter giving birth in a hospital where Little Red Book-bashers misrun the show.

In contrast to many other Chinese family sagas, “To Live” has the major advantage for Western auds of a small number of leading characters and clearly defined relationships.

Scripters Yu and Lu have cut out many of the novel’s peripheral roles to throw the central relationship into clearer focus. But in doing this and 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.

Result is a finely but undramatically lensed pic (by cinematographer Lu Yue, rather than Zhang’s earlier collaborator, Gu Changwei) that more often parades by rather than engaging the emotions for any significant period.

Though many non-Chinese viewers will be drawn by Gong’s name, most of the acting honors go to Ge (the epicene aesthete in “Concubine”). He often brings a quirky, ironic edge to the dialogue that makes one think the picture could also be read as a deep satire on China’s recent political history rather than pure (melo)drama. Pic has yet to get official approval by the Beijing authorities, after sneaking out to Japan for post-production just before the authorities decreed negs on foreign-funded films should first get local approval. In a tip of the hat to Beijing, Zhang, who’s due to start rolling on the foreign-financed “Shanghai Triad” this fall, stayed away from the Cannes fest.

For the first time in a Zhang movie, Gong plays second fiddle to a strong, accomplished actor. She’s very good in a supportive role, but her character doesn’t develop many wrinkles or depth.

Supporting perfs, including the children, are all fine, with special mention to Niu Ben as the town chief who makes even the Cultural Revolution seem like an everyday event.

Pic lensed over the second half of last year in a variety of mainland locations on a reported budget of $ 3 million-$ 4 million, from the same Hong Kong affiliate of a Taiwan-based company that funded Zhang’s earlier “Raise the Red Lantern.” Chinese title literally means “Living”; a recent English title, “Lifetimes,” has now been ditched.

To Live; Chinese

Production: A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release of an Era Intl. (H.K.) production, in association with Shanghai Film Studios. (International sales: Era Intl., H.K.) Produced by Chiu Fu-sheng. Executive producers, Christophe Tseng, Kow Fu-hong. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay, Yu Hua, Lu Wei, from the novel by Yu.

Crew: Camera (color), Lu Yue; editor, Du Yuan; music, Zhao Jiping; art direction, Cao Jiuping; costume design, Dong Huamiao; sound (Dolby), Tao Jing; associate producer, Barbara Robinson; assistant directors, Zhang Xleochun, Wang Bin. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 1994. Running time: 125 MIN.

With: Fugui ... Ge You Jiazhen ... Gong Li Town Chief ...Niu Ben Chunsheng ... Guo Tao Erxi ... Jiang Wu Long'er ... Ni Dabong Fengxia, as an adult ... Liu Tianchi Youqing ... Deng Fei

More Film

  • Rosie Day, Harriet Sanson Harris, Natalia

    Rosie Day, Harriet Sanson Harris, Natalia Tena Set For Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s Thriller ‘Baby’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    CANNES– Rosie Day (“Outlander”), Harriet Sanson Harris (“Phantom Thread”) and Natalia Tena (“Game of Thrones”) will star in Spaniard Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s psychological thriller “Baby,” Variety has learned exclusively. The project will be pitched on May 19 at Fantastic 7, a new Cannes initiative seeing seven of the world’s most prestigious fantastic festivals back and [...]

  • Polish Fest’s Industry Event Presents Upcoming

    New Horizons’ Polish Days Goes to Cannes With Five Films in Progress

    CANNES  —  Buoyed by a wave of international successes, including Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2019 foreign-language Oscar nominee “Cold War,” Polish cinema will get a fitting showcase Sunday morning with the presentation of five new projects at New Horizons’ Polish Days Goes to Cannes. Organized in conjunction with the Polish Film Institute, Polish Days is the most important [...]

  • Cannes, Annecy Animation Day Hosts ‘Bob

    Coala to Pitch ‘Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People’ at Cannes, Annecy Animation Day

    São Paulo-based Coala Filmes impressed in the series competition at last year’s Annecy Intl. Film Festival with an episode of their popular stop-motion series “Angeli the Killer,” based on the famous comics of the Brazilian comic-book writer of the same name. This year, the film’s director Cesar Cabral and producer Ivan Melo are participating in [...]

  • Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich’s $100 Million

    Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich’s $100 Million Film Fund Launches

    CANNES  —  Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s $100 million private film fund Kinoprime is ready for business, the fund’s CEO, Anton Malyshev, said in Cannes this week. Financed to the tune of $100 million over the next three years, the fund can provide up to 50% of a film’s production budget, with a $2 million cap [...]

  • Russian Helmer of Blockbuster ‘Stalingrad’ Looks

    Russia’s Fedor Bondarchuk Unveils Four New Films in Cannes

    CANNES  —  Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk introduced four new productions from his Art Pictures Studio Saturday in Cannes, including “Attraction 2,” the sequel to his 2017 sci-fi blockbuster. The invitation-only showcase at the Gray d’Albion hotel also unveiled footage from three new features that Bondarchuk is either directing or producing. Sci-fi thriller “Sputnik” is the story [...]

  • "The Whistlers" Review: The Romanian New

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Whistlers'

    With all due respect to Lauren Bacall, there’s always been a bit more to whistling than putting your lips together and blowing. Certainly for Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the corrupt Bucharest policeman embroiled in a comically complex plot to get a local gangster off the hook in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Cannes competition title “The Whistlers,” it is [...]

  • 'Vivarium' Review: Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen

    Cannes Film Review: 'Vivarium'

    Ah, the suburbs. The rec rooms and Formica kitchens and manicured lawns. The cozy suffocating middle-class conformity. The way they once stood for everything that was worth rebelling against. For decades, the suburbs have been the ultimate cheap-shot movie punchline — not just a location but a state of mind, a place to thumb our [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content