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To Live

Yimou Zhang


I felt a summary review was necessary for this film, please skip to the bottom for the final ratings to avoid spoilers if you choose.

To live, the basic need of humanity. Yimou Zhang brings us a story of one Chinese family, and the triumph and tragedy that befalls them over a period of approximately fifty years. The film follows the lives of Feng Gui, who begins the film as a compulsive gambler in the 1940's. In the opening scenes, Feng Gui loses his home and in doing so, his family. This is bad for Feng, but we find out it could have been worse, as if he had kept going the way things were, he would have been put to death for his actions as a landlord. Now without hearth and home, Feng is forced to look to make a living, to live, in whichever way possible.

Feng Gui "aquires" some puppets and begins a puppet show in earnest, not only to keep his sanity and food in his stomach. Again, at first this seems like a struggle, which it is, but we are shown things could have been worse once again for Feng, as he manages to stay on the sidelines of some political infighting that gets bloody fast, also managing to bring laughter and joy to many of the downtrodden chinese soldiers. Feng manages to stay alive by following his new, and more honest, path. During the dicing scene his wife begs him to stop playing, before he loses everything, and he makes what appears to be the incorrect choice to continue, indeed losing everything he had at that point, but the choice turns out to be better in the end. With the puppets, he makes what appears to be the correct choice, and it does in fact turn out to be the correct choice. This showcases that no matter what choices we make, fate can have an impact no matter what and redefine our lives.

Again time passes, and Feng Gui is once again reunited with his lost family, now a changed man. The new party is also gaining strength, and the family devotes themselves to the party. It is not long before another difficult choice presents itself to Feng Gui. The party requires work from the family, and Feng Gui must make the choice whther to send his exhausted son to work, therefore staying in excellent favor with the party, or refusing to send his son, and letting him get the rest he desperately needs. He chooses the party over his son, and pays dearly. Another example of choice making all the difference, but this time fate has little to do with the sons death due to lack of rest on the job. The family is crushed once again, but they stick together an press on, holding their daughter Fengxia tightly. They manage to live and overcome once again.

Things go well for some time and a marriage is arranged between Fengxia and a half-lame red guardsman Wan Erxi. Wan Erxi, the family, and the town leaderperson (they never give an official title, or I missed it) are all extremely dedicated to the new party, and show their support by having festivals and even painting portraits of the party leader on the walls of their home. The wedding goes off, and things are good for a short time until once again event take a turn for the worse as the red party begins to arrest local townsfolk as capitalist roaders. Many leaders, physicians, and scholars are arrested and ridiculed publicly, including the leader of the small town the family resides in. The family knows things are amiss when the town leader gets taken away, as his support for the party had been exemplary, and if he could get taken away, anyone could. This chapter in the families lives comes to a close with tragedy again, as Fengxia is brought to the hospital to have her child, only to find the staff comprised completely of medical students, as all the doctors have been taken away by The Party. Feng Gui attempts to find a doctor and bring him to help, but days of starvation put the old doc out of commision just atthe wrong time. As you would imagine, students aren't doctors, and the family once again faces the loss of one member, even as a new life enters the circle.

The film wraps up with what is left of this battered family traveling to the grave of Fengxia, happily, to visit and share family time with the new grandson. Erxi and his son face a hard life ahead, but with all they have endured, we feel confident that they will indeed, live.


This is a wonderful, if not sad film. I felt moved by it numerous times and can find little flaw in story, acting, and pacing. I did feel the cinematography a bit flat, but I think the locale had something to do with it, all gray walls and brick in the villages. All the characters were believeable and the hardships and hopes of this family become yours while you watch. I was also a big fan of all the fate/choice concepts interwoven throughout, and wanted to convey some of the concepts in this review, hence the summary format this time. This director masterfully peppers his film at regular intervals with these concepts and I find this to be one of the film's main strengths. Even if you read the summary (which is very light in comparison to the storythreads in the film), I still recommend viewing the film as it has much to offer. I plan on watching it again soon.