To Live is a 1994 Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Ge You (If You Are the One) and Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha), and based on the novel of the same name written by Yu Hua.
The story begins during the 1940s, and focuses on Xu Fugui, who loses his entire family fortune through compulsive gambling. The movie follows Fugui, along with his wife Jiazhen, daughter Fengxia, and son Youqing, through the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, and is the story of a family that triumphs over political and physical hardships.
It is far too limiting to call this movie a fictional film. No, it is probably more accurate to refer to this movie as a documentary. While there may not have actually existed a single family such as Fugui’s, To Live illustrates many of the all-too-real hardships suffered by the Chinese during the twentieth century. Indeed, so harsh was the movie’s message that the film was temporarily banned in mainlandChina for its critical portrayal of the policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Zhang Yimou was subsequently banned from filmmaking for two years.
This is a very sobering movie to watch – its uncanny sense of reality serves as an eye-opener for those who have led very shielded and protected lives. There is quite a difference between reading about these facts in a textbook and watching a movie where the emotional tension is almost palpable – it was impossible for me to hold back tears at several points in the movie.
However, as dark as this movie is, I still love it. For one, the screenplay and actors are incredible: Ge You won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and Gong Li was nominated for Best Actress at the Chlotrudis Awards. But beyond that, its powerful contextual message was what captivated me most – in the midst of Communist China, a movie criticizing the flaws in the government was created – and that degree of courage impressed to no end.