“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” -Mao Tse-Tung
Since the institutionalization of Mao Tse-Tung’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949, China has experienced lots of revolutionary changes in their social, economic, cultural and political environment.
The movie “To Live” basically is a film about a family’s experience during this hard and challenging time. Released in 1994 and was directed by Zhang Yimou and his sixth collaboration with Gong Li, “To Live” gives its viewers a journey towards this very revolutionary stage for the whole Chinese people. This movie transcends four decades of China’s history which includes the Chinese Civil War, Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
A winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, “To Live” gives another perspective about this particular stage of China’s history. Instead of looking from above, the movie emphasizes the life experiences of the ordinary people as they try to cope up with these changes brought by the Chinese government. According to its director Zhang Yimou: "I believe that for a long time now Chinese films have been too abstract, conceptual, gimmicky. They don't relate at all to the lives of ordinary Chinese people. I'm certain that most audiences will like this film. We haven't gone overboard on the tragic elements, but rather have focused on the minute, amusing details in the life of a nobody. There are tears and laughter, one following the other in a gentle rhythm like the breath of a bellows." That is why this film captured the different pains, joys, laughter and horrors of life from the perspective of ordinary people.
There are many interpretations on the meaning of the movie’s title. The most common is that, since the movie was staged during a difficult time, the movie shows us how the Chinese people cope up and be resilient on the different challenges that they face in order to live life. But there are other deeper messages that the film’s title “To Live” tries to give its viewers. Since the penetration of communism in China’s government, the phrase “to live” has changes its meaning. Living now depends on what the government say or do not say. Almost all of the people’s actions are constrained by the laws and regulations posed by the government. Due to the institutionalization of communism in China, the private sphere has become a part of the public sphere. Privacy seems to have long been disappeared in China’s society. Whether this new definition of “living” in Chinese society had become positive or negative is still debatable but watching this movie shall give its viewers a new perspective on the life of ordinary Chinese people in the light of communism.
The film focuses on the lives of Fugui and his wife Jiazhen. They started as a wealthy family, but due to Fugui’s compulsive gambling, they lost everything and Jiazhen, who is pregnant with their second child, left his husband with their daughter Fengxia. But eventually Jiazhen came back to Fugui and leaves the past behind with their daughter and their one-year old son Youqing. But Fugui was drafted for the Kuomintang and left his family for the Civil War. When the war was over, Fugui came back and started a new life again with a new kind of government. And from then on, the family experienced a mix of joyful and harsh experiences in order to survive living in such difficult times. Several tragedies have struck the family which includes the tragic death of their son Youqing and eventually the mishap of their daughter Fengxia while giving birth. In all of these tragedies that the family had encountered, they can all be rooted to the imposition of communism to China;s society. As for Youqing’s death, if not for they were not forced to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward, he must have been still alive. And for Fengxia’s demise, there were no doctors available to be able to look Fengxia’s giving birth because all doctors have been sent to do hard labor for being "reactionary academic authorities" as a consequence of the ongoing Cultural Revolution in China. Is communism really is to blame for the different mishaps that the characters experienced? Does this movie made in order to persuade people to join the anti-communist movement?
Because of the critical portrayal of the various policies and campaigns made by the communist government in this movie, Zhang Yimou was banned from China and doing films for two years. The movie shows its viewers the different failures of Chinese communism, too much worship on Mao and the negative effects that were brought by the Cultural Revolution. Now the question that arises is, does the film “To Live” was an anti-communist movie? Some would say yes, because of the explicit and implicit connection of the tragedies experienced by the characters of the film. Others argue that the film is not really propaganda against communism. The most impressive thing that I think the movie possesses is its honesty, most of which can be attributed by the brilliant acting of the movie’s characters. People can feel the different emotions that come out from its characters. In order to be truthful in conveying what does ordinary Chinese people felt during those times- the movie showed not only the disadvantages but also some advantages that communism gives Chinese people. I think that the director only wants the viewers to show the truth not to hate communism. If the director really hated communism why would reconcile with the Chinese government and continue living in China. Whether or not the movie was made to rally against communism, I can say that the movie is very effective in showing its viewers the real images and emotions with what happened during this challenging time in Chinese history.
Relative to the other films that we watched in this class, this movie is more explicit in relaying to the political message of the film. I can describe it as an “in your face” movie because the film clearly shows its viewers what it wants to relay due to the honesty and rawness of the way the story was delivered in the film. But does explicitness makes the conveyance of political socialization ineffective? I argue that the explicitness of a movie’s message in some way contributes to its effectiveness but there are some factors that can still be an agent in order for the film to be more effective tool for political socialization. Its explicitness will be a very effective tool for political socialization specifically for those viewers who watch films only for entertainment and do not analyze much about a movie because they will easily get the point of the film. However, it is sometimes better for a film to be less explicit for the viewers to have a deeper connection on the film and maybe have a better effect on the political socialization of the moviegoers. But as stated earlier, there are other factors that can attribute to the effectiveness of a film as an agent of political socialization such as the different mise en scene elements and other contextual elements that may affect a moviegoer’s perception towards a film.
To conclude, the movie “To Live” gave us a perspective that is very close to ours which is the perspective of an ordinary man. And from this perspective, we had seen the different joys and pains that an ordinary Chinese citizen experienced during a time where resiliency is very hard due to the revolutionary changes that happen in China. This film is a very brilliant reflection of what really existed during those times. But the movie does not really tell us to hate communism, it shows us the value of “living”- whether you are up or down, we must continue living life just like the characters of this film had portrayed to us
LISBOG, L. F.
Little Bun: [playing with chickens] When will they grow up?
Xu Jiazhen: Very soon.
Little Bun: And then?
Xu Fugui: And then... the chickens will turn into geese... and the geese will turn into sheep... and the sheep will turn into oxen.
Little Bun: And after the oxen?
Xu Fugui: After oxen...
Xu Jiazhen: After oxen, Little Bun will grow up.
Little Bun: I want to ride on an ox's back.
Xu Jiazhen: You will ride on an ox's back.
Xu Fugui: Little Bun won't ride on an ox... he'll ride trains and planes... and life will get better and better.
The lines above are the last few lines uttered in the film. In this parting scene, the viewers are given a huge room for interpretation as to what the film wants to convey. It is in this realization, that it is asserted in this review that the effectiveness of a film as a tool for political socialization does not solely rely on its explicitness to show its political content to the viewers. Occasionally, it is sufficiently needed that political messages are concealed behind scenes of symbolisms in order to capture and eventually provoke the audience towards realizing the deep messages embedded within a film.
The film To Live, by Zhang Yimou presents a narrative of the lives of Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen, the changes that took place within their society and the consequent transformations that took place within their family and personal sphere. Huozhe or To Live takes it viewers on a four-decade trip in China that starts from 1940s and traverses through the 1980s. The film tells the story of the family of Xu Fugui and the various personal changes that happened in their family in the context of societal transformations that were coincidently happening in China. The film explicitly shows the various transformations that happened in China for four decades. It shows the lives of the Chinese people during the pre-civil war era, during the civil war, during the Great Leap Forward, and finally, during the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, the film overtly shows the changes that happened within the personal lives of Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen and how these changes were affected by the operating context in China. As in Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju director Zhang Yimou meticulously presents a clear-headed view of Chinese life where the destinies of individuals are determined by forces beyond their control. To Live honors the resiliency of Fugui and his wife in the face of political change, bureaucratic incompetence, and personal tragedy.
The movie To Live was made in 1994 where China was slowly opening up its economy and its relations to the world. Its director, Zhang Yimou, was considered one of the filmmakers who belong to the so-called Fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers. It is in this period that filmmakers reject the traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach of filmmaking. Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others were considered the first group of filmmakers to graduate since the Cultural Revolution. Subsequently, it was during the Fifth generation period that Chinese cinema began reaping the rewards of international attention [the 1992 Golden Lion for Zhang Yimou’s the Story of Qiu Ju]. Extremely diverse in style and subject, the Fifth Generation directors' films ranged from black comedy (Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident, 1985) to the esoteric (Chen Kaige's Life on a String, 1991), but they share a common rejection of the socialist-realist tradition worked by earlier Chinese filmmakers in the Communist era. Some of their bolder works with political overtones were banned by Chinese authorities.
After looking at what the film is and how it is contextualized, three themes that are apparent in the film will then be recognized. Subsequently, this critique will revolve around the themes of changes, public vs private, and the explicitness vs covertness of political messages within a film. The first theme that is evident in the film is the theme of changes and how to cope with it. In the film, changes were introduced both on the individual and the societal level. On the individual level, the change that was introduced which was also influenced by the individual’s own doing - in this case, Xu Fugui, - was the change from being a landlord to an ordinary person. Seeing the changes on the economic status of lead character and his family, it is argued that these changes are brought about and are influenced by the personal doings of Xu Fugui- of the individual himself. On a societal level, the film shows the changes that were happening on the Chinese society and the various political systems and ideologies that were imposed on the Chinese people. Consequently, these societal changes have corresponding effects to the lives of everyone in the film. With the societal changes happening, it is asserted that in this context, individuals no longer have control over the changes that were happening to them, for it was already the external factors that operate, influence and affect the lives of the individuals.
In line with the idea of the individual and the society is the discourse between the public and private domain of the individual. The film ingeniously presented the dichotomy between the public and private domain using the context of the changes that happened in China. Pre-civil war, the structure of the Chinese society is individualistic in nature. There is a divide between an individual’s personal and family matters vis-à-vis his community and external environment. This is seen in the confrontation scene between Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen where the surrounding people, though listening to the two characters arguing, did not care to intervene and mingle with the issues and affairs of the couple. The shift to Communism blurs the divide between the personal and the public. It is seen in the film that during the communist rule, the Chinese people have little regard to their personal lives for it is the community and the state that they prioritize on. This high regard to the state as opposed to the personal or the family is evidently seen in how the people centralize themselves just to make steel for the state. In this scene, everyone is working for the state in such a way that even the children no longer enjoy their regular number of sleep. In this context, the divide between the public and the private is blurred; moreover, the Chinese society becomes collectivistic and gives prime on the commune and the government.
The last theme that can be extracted from the film is the discourse on the effectiveness of the film based on its explicitness to present its political messages to the public. The film, through its use of the various historical events that happened in Chinese society and juxtaposing those to the conditions of the Chinese people, explicitly presented the various conditions that happened to the Chinese people during the different transformations that took place. In this context, the film explicitly showed to the viewers the effects of the various transformations; most specifically, it presented the two sides of Pre-Communist and Communist China. Accordingly, the film also implicitly presented political messages by concealing the messages behind symbolic lines and messages. An example of which is the symbolism made to the seven buns that were eaten by the doctor that was supposed to guide the childbirth of the daughter of Xu Fugui, Fengxia. The doctor ate seven buns but by drinking water at the same time, each bun expanded to the size of seven buns. The doctor hence became semiconscious and cannot help the dying Fengxia. Therefore, Fengxia’s death is a result of the overeating of the doctor, because the doctor had actually eaten 49 buns. Consequently, 1949 was the year that the Chinese Communist Party cemented its hold in China. It is in this juxtaposition that the film implicitly conveys that Communism causes the death of the Chinese people during that era.
To Live is an inspiring and moving movie that will definitely capture the appeal and attention of its viewers. I personally liked the story for it tackled personal issues on the context of the external factors that affect the lives of the characters both on the personal and social levels. The film used the personal domain of life in order to discuss salient political issues within China. The film presents the various sides of communism, its advantages and disadvantages and its apparent effect to the Chinese people. It is in this regard that I view the film as a powerful tool for political socialization for it tries to tell its viewers that communism, while entailing some strong points, also entails strong weak points and some of which are the low human and social development and continuation of poverty. The film helped me to conclude that communism is not a totally effective form of political system for the evils that is also felt in democracies are also felt in this system, case in point, poverty.