* * * *
Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas
Credits: Directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li and Ge You
Running time: 2:13
Rated: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG-13)
Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has made a career of telling his country’s story. In such films as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine,” he has related the harsh climate of oppression prevalent in both feudal and revolutionary China.
But while he never avoids politics, a stance that has kept him in continual trouble with the Chinese authorities, Zhang isn’t concerned with the actions of government so much as how governmental actions affect individual people.
For Zhang concentrates on people. The power of his films emanates from their personal stories.
His latest effort, “To Live,” may be his strongest film to date. It also may be the simplest in theme and form.
Spanning the better part of three decades, “To Live” follows the fluctuating fortunes of one particular family. The family’s trials include World War II, the subsequent civil war between nationalist and communist forces and, ultimately, the various eras of communist leadership up to and including the infamous 10-year-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966.
Through it all, we watch as the family copes with one disaster after another. Life plays out as the intimate opera it is, with intent and effort only marginally important in the long run. Yes, Zhang tells us, dissolute behavior may lead to bankruptcy, but unquestioning acceptance to dictatorial rules can just as easily lead to unutterable loss.
In short, there is no sure formula for happiness and success. There is only the obligation to forge on in the face of difficulty.
There is only the obligation, in the end, to live.
Ubiquitous Chinese star Gong Li plays the family matriarch as a woman strong enough to leave a weak man and yet return when he discovers an ability to endure. Whether standing up to a district leader or crying at the grave of a loved one, Gong again proves that she ranks among the world’s great actresses.
But, for once, Gong is matched by her male co-star, Ge You, who gives the husband shades of complexity. While never quite able to rid himself of a self-destructive tendency for smugness, Ge’s character remains a likeable man who makes the transition from compulsive gambler to hard-working comrade with comparative ease.
Zhang backs his actors with his typical talent for rich visual imagery: a bayonet tearing through the curtain of a puppet theater, hundreds of soldiers running over a snowcovered ridge, the smile of a nearly deaf child.
But it is his ability to get the most from his screenplay, which Yu Hua and and Lu Wei adapted from Yu’s novel, that displays Zhang at his best. By allowing scenes to play out to their logical ends and refusing to clutter up the action with MTV-type camera angles or geewhiz editing, Zhang manages to underscore the tone of ironic tragedy that is the history of modern China.
Zhang’s characters don’t have much, but they treasure what little they do possess. And maybe, just maybe, they prove that happiness comes from finding that place where merely to endure, merely to live, means everything.
Or at least enough.
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