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During China's Tang dynasty the emperor has taken the princess of a neighboring province as wife. She has borne him two sons and raised his eldest. Now his control over his dominion is complete, including the royal family itself.
Fugui and Jiazhen endure tumultuous events in China as their personal fortunes move from wealthy landownership to peasantry. Addicted to gambling, Fugui loses everything. In the years that follow he is pressed into both the nationalist and communist armies, while Jiazhen is forced into menial work. They raise a family and survive, managing "to live" from the 40's to the 70's in this epic, but personal, story of life through an amazing period. Written by
What I think Zhang Yimou's message here is that the will of the people "to live," as in the title, to survive and overcome obstacles is what defines the Chinese people. They ride the ox of communism as a boat rides a wave. They adapt.
Consider that tall and thin Fugui (played with consummate skill by You Ge) says that a chick will become a chicken when it grows up, and then a sheep and then an ox and then the Communist Party. But as the film ends he tells his grandson only that the chick will become a chicken and then a sheep and then an ox. He doesn't mention communism. In this way we know that the people have tamed the ox.
Zhang's film is an epic parable of life in China in the 20th century. It opens before the communist revolution with protagonist Fugui as a wayward son who is gambling the family fortune away. His wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li) pleads with him to stop, but he cannot. He is addicted to vice. Symbolically he represents the old regime. He loses everything, wife included and goes to live in the streets. After some time the revolutionary war begins and he and his friends find it convenient to switch sides and join the revolutionary army--he as an entertainer for the troops, a puppeteer. He and wife reunite and become loyal and even enthusiastic communists. He is lucky to have lost his fortune for now he is recognized as a hero of the revolution, while the man who won his family's house at dice is declared a counter-revolutionary and meets a bad end.
As in every Zhang Yimou film I have seen, everything is beautifully and exquisitely done. His work is characterized by an artist's sense of color and form, by an engaging simplicity in the telling, and by a subtle sense of what is going on politically, and especially by a deep and abiding sense of humanity. Here the transformation of Chinese society from feudalism to communism to the capitalist/communism hybrid that exists today is shown through the eyes and experiences of the people; and what is emphasized is the endurance and the will of the people to survive, adapt and finally to flourish regardless of who might be in power.
I would compare Zhang Yimou to the very greatest directors, say, to Stanley Kubrick, to Francis Ford Coppola, to Louis Malle, to Krzysztof Kieslowski in sheer artistic talent. Like Malle he is warm and honest about human beings and what they do without being maudlin or sentimental. Like Coppola he has an epic-maker's vision, and like the Coppola of the Godfather films, a strong sense of family. Like Kubrick he is creative and always aware of the needs of the audience, and like Kieslowski he is clever.
This is in some respects Zhang Yimou's finest achievement because of the way he tells the story of communism in China. I am reminded of the way Louis Malle tells the truth about human sexuality without inciting the censors. Here Zhang Yimou tells the truth about the communist experience in China, subtly demonstrating its cruelties and stupidities without, amazing enough, incurring the wrath of the authorities. (Some of his films have been banned in China, but I understand they are readily available nonetheless.) Here the kids are smiling and happy as they work in the steel mill. The accident that kills Fugui's son is seen as just that, an accident and not the fault of the "Great Leap Forward." The members of the educated class, who are ridiculed, beaten and banished (and worse) during the "Cultural Revolution," accept their fate as their just deserts--the doctor who insists that it is better to wear the placard shaming him that is hung from around his neck than it is to take it off. The local official who has preached and practiced the communist line faithfully, who finds himself being labeled a capitalist, also accepts his fate as though in doing so he is furthering a cause larger than himself.
In a way Zhang Yimou's international celebrity and reputation as one of the world's greatest film makers protects him. In another sense his depictions of the sins and excesses of the old regime before communism are so well done and appreciated by all, that such an expression also protects him.
Nonetheless, I do not personally consider this Zhang Yimou's best film. I prefer the startling beauty of Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Red Sorghum (1987) as well as the charming Not One Less (1999) or the simple but powerful, The Story of Qiu Ju. However, this is an outstanding film.
Notable in a supporting role is Wu Jiang as Wan Erxi the strong young man with the limp who marries the mute daughter. I have seen him in Shower (1999) in which his personal charisma and strength of character are shown more fully. He is the younger brother of Wan Jiang who starred in Zhang Yimou's first film, Red Sorghum. Of course Gong Li, one of the finest actresses of our time, who is often featured in Zhang Yimou's films, is outstanding as always.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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