To Live, a Chinese Mandarin language film now available on Netflix DVD, is still powerful 24 years after it was first produced.
Starring Gong Li and directed by Zhang Yimou, To Live was banned in China when it was first released, and the Chinese government punished the director by preventing him from working for two years.
It’s the story of a Chinese family who starts out rich and ends up poor, and there’s plenty of tragedy and some bloodshed along the way. Still, the film encompasses thirty years, through the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
To Live begins in the 1940s, as the protagonist, Xu Fugui, played by Ge You, is busy gambling away his fortune. His beleaguered wife, Jiazhen,(Gong Li) threatens to leave and ultimately takes his young daughter away after Fugui loses their home. His elderly parents are harmed by his actions, and Fugui begins selling trinkets in the street. No more gambling.
Eventually, Jiazhen returns. She has borne Fugui a son, and her daughter can no longer speak because of a fever. Fugui decides to make his living by organizing a shadow puppet troupe and touring the country. He and his friend in the troupe, Chunsheng, get conscripted by the Nationalist soldiers into the Chinese Civil War, and worry they will never be able to return home. But the Nationalists are defeated, Fugui and Chunsheng are captured by the Communists. Fugui still has his puppets, and he and Chunsheng put on performances for the troops.
Fugui gets a certificate saying he served in the Communist army which he keeps when he returns home. He and Jiazhen face many changes. He sees the man who won his house in the gambling den being led to his execution and realizes losing the home was actually a stroke of luck.
Ten years later the children are older and we learn that Fugui’s son is quite a handful. He sees some boys using a slingshot against his older sister, so Youquing decides to get his revenge. He pours a bowl of spicy noodles over the head of the ringleader at a dining hall, and his father gives him a public beating.
Later, Jiazhen tells her husband the reason young Youquing did what he did to defend his sister.
The rest of the film concerns the lives of Fugui’s and Jiazhen’s children, both of which end tragically. Chunsheng also comes to an ignominious end, severing the deep bond he has with Fugui.
Some critics have called this film too sentimental but it speaks to the power of the human spirit and how some people can overcome the difficulties of an oppressive government, despite the pain and tragedies of life.