Film Reviews

Quiet epic

To Live, the latest historical melodrama from Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, isn't anything like the film I'd been led to anticipate--and that's good.

The trailers playing in art houses across the United States position it as a traditionally sentimental epic about a poor family buffeted by the winds of history; they play up the film's detailed costumes, lush landscapes, meticulously re-created scenes of village life, and screen-filling hordes of costumed extras, perhaps hoping to sell it as an Asian Dr. Zhivago.

But in its heart, Yimou's film is actually a low-key domestic melodrama that's spare, intimate, and surprisingly funny--a film about the tiny, throwaway moments that ultimately define our personal lives, even during times of enormous political upheaval.

It fits neatly into Yimou's ongoing series about domestic life in rural China, which includes Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju. Yimou doesn't make movies about emperors and generals; he's more interested in the lives of their water carriers, concubines, and foot soldiers. His work is about the way average people endure sudden setbacks, heartbreaks, and cruel cosmic jokes--and if they're resilient and lucky, transcend them.

The family in question is the Xu clan, prominent residents of a small rural village. They live in a spacious house owned by the family patriarch, complete with fine clothes, elegant meals, and servants to pamper them. Unfortunately, the family's oldest son, Fugui (Ge You), is a sometime musician and hopeless gambling addict who loses the family's fortune and property in a drunken dice game.

It's the last straw for his long-suffering and three-months-pregnant wife, Jiazhen (the heartbreakingly beautiful Gong Li, who's as critically revered and beloved in contemporary China as Ingrid Bergman was here in the 1940s). She flees to her mother's house, taking her young daughter, Fengxia, with her. Publicly disgraced and wracked with guilt, Fugui becomes a beggar and spends several months on the streets. It turns out to be a period of sincere penance; when Fugui inevitably seeks out his wife and begs her to take him back, he swears to live his life responsibly.

While her husband was away, Jiazhen gave birth to a son, Youquing. (As a prank, she tells Fugui she named the boy "No Gamble"; Fugui, who's been in the ultimate doghouse for months, nods agreeably and says he has no problem with that.) Flushed with fatherly joy and a newfound sense of pragmatism, Fugui swallows his pride, visits the gambler who cleaned him out earlier, and begs the man for a loan. The gambler tells Fugui he'd be better off putting his artistic talents to use. He gives Fugui a box of ornate shadow puppets and encourages him to become a puppeteer.

This marks the end of the film's first vignette. There are four of them. Each is set in a different decade of 20th-century Chinese life. Each one sees the Xus confronted by a different, seemingly implacable series of forces--government upheaval, family woes, financial difficulty, even war. And structurally, each vignette is reined in by strict boundaries of time and space--a set number of days, weeks, or months in a particular region of China during a particular historical period.

The Xu family aren't allowed much latitude to seek their fortune; in fact, for most of the movie they're more likely to be acted upon than to act. To Live is about exactly what its title promises--making the most of the sometimes miserable hand life has dealt to you, and learning to survive and thrive despite the fact that your options for freedom and happiness are severely limited.

For instance, no sooner has Fugui pledged to become a reliable husband and father, plying his trade as a puppeteer and taking an active interest in his two children, than he's drafted into Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Army and compelled to fight against Mao's communist rebels. He's away from his family for a long time, surviving more by dumb luck and animalistic cunning than anything else, and by the time he returns home, his elderly mother has died and his own kids barely recognize him.

But Fugui's wife doesn't waste time talking about how much she resents the Nationalists or Mao's troops, or how angry she is at the forces of fate. What happened happened. So she welcomes her husband back with open arms, and together they quietly, almost stoically, set about the business of paying their bills and raising their offspring. The only time Fugui and Jiazhen obsess over their luck is when their children are affected, but even then the couple realizes that lamenting what happens doesn't make life any better.

Given the film's emphasis on the harshness of existence, it seems almost inconceivable that Yimou could dredge up any humor at all. Yet To Live is so filled with humorous touches, both subtle and broad, light and dark, that at times it seems more of a very dry comedy than a traditional epic melodrama.

Yimou has demonstrated in the past that he's quite capable of expressing profound, almost overwhelming passion, and that along with Jane Campion and Martin Scorsese, he probably understands the mechanics of rage, jealousy, and obsession better than almost any filmmaker working today. But this new movie downplays his emotional side and plays up his tremendous skill as an ironist. Yimou's irony doesn't ask people to stand back from what happens to them, to somehow belittle their own broken dreams and hearts and then embrace cynicism and bitterness. It's defense-mechanism humor--a brand of humor that allows people to simultaneously exist inside their pain, suffering and cursing and desperately trying to stay sane, as well as outside of it, rolling their eyes at the absurdity of their predicament.

Yimou uses it in sequences of startling visual sweep, like the one during the 1940s war in which Fugui and two friends huddle together beneath stolen army coats in the dead of icy winter and wake up to blessed silence--only to discover, moments later, that their encampment is so quiet because everybody else in it died during the night. The filmmaker also uses it in smaller, almost incidental moments, like the scene in which Fugui and Jiazhen return home from the marketplace to find that their now-teenage daughter's suitor, an up-and-coming member of the Red Guard, has painted a gigantic mural of Chairman Mao on their living-room wall, and asks the startled parents what they think of it. (The camera catches Fugui's skinny, wan face in a lovely, affectionate closeup as he murmurs, "Uh...great!")

Throughout the Xu family's long, complex, and sometimes difficult existence as a family, two constants sustain them. One, of course, is their tremendous love for each other. It's not the type of familial love we often see in Hollywood movies, where every time someone hugs a relative a 40-piece string orchestra swells and the camera whirls around the actors like a mad hummingbird. It's an everyday kind of love--one more often expressed through actions, like fixing a child's lunch, than through words.

The other constant--equally important to Yimou--is the instinctive resilience of artists. Fugui the puppeteer responds to each shift in his nation's character with a new adaptation. Depending on the crowd for whom he's performing, he can use the same puppets to represent comic figures, love objects, mythic heroes and villains, current ideals and discredited old ones, and almost anything else. No matter what happens, this man will get by.

I can't help thinking that to Yimou--who was barred from making movies in China for two years by his own government, which found this latest film unpatriotic--Fugui is the closest thing he'll ever find to an alter ego. They're both men from a country who are men without countries--men scarred by the outside who take refuge, even joy, in looking inward.

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Matt Zoller Seitz