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Films: “To Live” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: May 12th, 2020

“To Live” (1994) and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” (2002) are one of the most impressive movies about the life of Chinese people during the rule of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution in particularly. Both movies present the finest examples of effective use of space and symbolism to reflect the reality Chinese nation faced in the twentieth century.

“To Live” is the movie directed by Zhang Yimou in 1994. The movie is based on the novel by Yu Hua, which tells the story of a Chinese family living during the times of peasant revolution and further events during the rule of Mao Zedong. The plot of the movie is focused on the story about a husband and a wife and the severe challenges they face after the revolution and the formation of the communist regime. A cinematic space, which is understood as a “representation of space” through conceptualization of the conditions, is appropriately used in the movie to reflect the harsh reality of those times (Chee and Lim 6). Zhang Yimou uses eye-contact to “maintain smooth continuity in the scene” (“To Live – Zhang Yimou (1994)” par. 14). He also uses “perspectival separations” to maintain emotional dynamism and tension (“To Live – Zhang Yimou (1994)” par. 14).

The background music is also effectively used to convey the emotions and feelings. The landscapes presented in the movie also serve as a tool for creating an appropriate atmosphere and conveying the main messages of the movie to the viewer. The landscapes in the movie are recorded as an aesthetic and communicative form of presenting the information (Rayner and Harper 2). The landscapes are used both to contrast and reflect the events. For example, the impressive views of Chinese nature are contrasted with the terrifying images of war. The old age of the main heroes, portrayed at the end of the film, is reflected in the landscape of fall fading nature ((“To Live 1994, Full Movie with English Subtitles”). Within the entirety of any cinematic landscape, color and shape also play a part (Harper and Rayner 16). The colors are masterly used in the movie to reflect the tragic nature of the events. For example, the episodes describing the Chinese Civil War are portrayed in dark, doomed colors to reflect the despair and absence of joy.

However, the beginning of the film describing the careless life of the main hero is portrayed in warm colors, which reflect the light-hearted atmosphere. The deep dark colors are used in the clothes and interior of homes of the peasants to demonstrate their hard life and monotony propagated by the communist regime. The movie is also rich in impressive symbolism. The abundance of political banners and music symbolize the pressure of the communist regime on every sphere of life of ordinary people. Even the homes of heroes are full of political posters portraying Mao Zedong (“To Live 1994, Full Movie with English Subtitles”). Folk songs can be regarded as the symbolic contrast to the reality as they serve as reminders of the past of China. To demonstrate the pressure put on the peasants during the Cultural Revolution, the movie portrays two deaths of the children of the main heroes caused by careless behavior of the people who were in superior positions during those times.

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” was directed by Dai Sijie in 2002. The movie is based on the novel written by the director. The plot of the film tells the story about several young people living during the times of Cultural Revolution. The cinematic use of space in the movie can be characterized as the one that helps the viewer to submerge in the atmosphere of the movie and feel like he/she is the real-time witness of the described events. The film is rich in marvelous landscapes of the nature of Chinese rural areas. The beauty and harmony of these rural landscapes are contrasted to the gray and colorless landscapes of the city.

Dai uses deep rich colors to portray the life of the peasants and reflect their harsh everyday life. Such deep colors create the contrast with the difficulty of the reality of peasants. Dai also masterly uses weather conditions and corresponding color specters to accompany positive or negative events. Sunny weather and bright colors accompany joyful events while rain and faded colors accompany sad events. The movie is rich in symbols. A remote village in the mountains, where the main heroes are sent is a symbol of old Eastern traditions and the life of Chinese people they were used to lead during the centuries. The old traditions and culture that are symbolized by the village are contrasted to the newest times. The location of the village contributes to its deep symbolism, as it is situated close to the Yellow River, which is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.

One of the main heroes, the Little Seamstress, leaves the village in search for “a new life” (“Eng Sub Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress 2002”). The new ideas, introduced to her by Luo and Ma, change her worldview, and she considers her native village a thing of the past. The news clip showing flooded villages at the end of the movie symbolizes that the past of culture of China is destroyed. The film portrays the Chief’s senseless attempt to destroy Ma’s violin to demonstrate the pressure put on the peasants during the Cultural Revolution. Such episode reflects the narrow-mindedness and lack of intelligence of most people occupying leading positions during the Cultural Revolution. The movie shows that the peasants had to suffer from the careless decisions of such people.

Both movies are considered masterpieces of Chinese cinematography and help the viewers to explore the specifics of life of the peasants in China during the twentieth century.

Works Cited

Chee, Lilian, and Edna Lim. Asian Cinema and the Use of Space: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

.” Youtube. 2013. Web.

Harper, Graham, and Jonathan Rayner. Cinema and Landscape, Bristol, United Kingdom: Intellect Ltd., 2010. Print.

Rayner, Jonathan, and Graham Harper. Film Landscapes: Cinema, Environment and Visual Culture, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. Print.

“To Live 1994, Full Movie with English Subtitles.” Youtube. 2013. Web.

(1994). Web.

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IvyPanda. "Films: “To Live” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/films-to-live-and-balzac-and-the-little-chinese-seamstress/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Films: “To Live” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/films-to-live-and-balzac-and-the-little-chinese-seamstress/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Films: “To Live” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”'. 12 May.

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