Showing a political conflict through a personal drama is not an easy task, especially when introducing a period in history of a state whose culture and traditions are exotic to Europe and the U.S. However, Zhang Yimou has managed to do a very decent job of portraying the history of the Great Leap Forward period by telling a story of a typical Chinese family and the relationships between typical people.
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By incorporating impressive and very realistic visuals, that allow for sinking into the Chinese culture, together with the description of the Chinese family values and traditions shown through the interaction between Fugui, Jiazhen, and their children, as well as the elements pointing at the obvious political conflict (i.e., the striking contrast between Fugui’s poverty and the wealth of Long’er), Yimou has managed to create a unique and very vivid interpretation of the Great Leap Forward and its effect on the Chinese people.
The movie has a very distinct relation to the Confucian philosophy. As a matter of fact, the environment in which the lead characters live is pretty close to the ones in which the Confucian teaching was started. According to the existing historical accounts, Confucianism was started in the so-called Spring and Autumn Period (Wang 253), when the whole state was literally torn apart by the discrepancies in the foreign and domestic policies due to the atomism of the state.
Offering family and religion as the stronghold of China, Confucianism, therefore, stressed the importance of family and its values, which is nowhere shown as graphically as in To Live. Though Fugui starts out as a gambler, he finally realizes the true value of a family: “’What did you name our son?’ – ‘Don’t Gamble’” (To Live). As his son dies due to a freak accident, he comforts his wife and turns into a real head of the family, therefore, seeing its members through the crisis.
The movie also renders a number of issues concerning the movements in China of the time. To Live portrays the independent movement in a very efficient manner. Yimou makes it clear that people were fighting for a cause: “If I weren’t looking for my brother, I wouldn’t be wearing this uniform” (To Live).
Another great scene, in which Fugui talks to his son about the way in which every single element of life is intertwined, should be mentioned. Speaking of what happens to the chickens when they grow up, Fugui actually creates a big metaphor for Chin: “Little Bun won’t ride on an ox…he’ll ride trains and planes… and life will get better and better” (To Live).
This scene summarizes the transformation of China in a nutshell. Though the state had to pass through a number of painful moments, it still needed this war to claim its rights for freedom.
By far one of the greatest films ever produced to show a historical drama through a personal conflict, To Live might seem a rather dark and depressing story that views life ad a cadence of pointless events, unfair rules and death as a relatively merciful way to leave. However, it is rather a manifestation of the need to struggle to survive.
As it has been mentioned above, Long’er’s wife’s suicide can be viewed as her inability to handle the complexities of live, whereas the strength of Fugui’s family proves that with a decent moral standpoint and enough faith, a human can survive the worst times in history.
To Live. Dir. Zhang Yimou. Perf. Ge You, Gong Li and Nu Ben. Samuel Godwyn/Era International Film Studios. 1994. DVD.