Zhang Yimou has come a long what since working as cinematographer for Chen Kaige. The director of such films as "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the Red Lantern," Yimou is only now starting to garner the praise and attention he has long deserved. He wins awards at Cannes almost as often as he is banned by the Chinese Government--it's becoming a tradition.
Yimou's latest film "To Live" starring Gong Li and Ge You breaks new ground for the director. Simple and elegant, it portrays the life of an ordinary man. Yimou's past films concentrated on extravagance, using the camera more as a palette and the screen as his canvas. His films were beautiful at the expense of the narrative.
Yimou traces the course of a common man's life during the difficult times of the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. For the first time, Yimou concentrates on the story and allows the visuals to follow.
The film opens in a gambling hall where Fugui (Ge You) is on a losing streak. His wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) begs him not to return, but before long Fugui loses his home. When his father hears the news, he dies from a heart attack. To make matters worse, Fugui's pregnant wife, fed up with his life style, takes their daughter Fengxia and returns home to her family. Devastated, Fugui is reduced to the life of a beggar.
Months later, Jiazhen returns to Fugui with their new son. Youquing. With a familiy to support, Fugui needs a job. He approaches the crafty Long'er, played by Ni Da Hong, in the hopes of starting a business. Miserly Long'er lives in the house he won from Fugui's familiy, and declines to lend his former rival any money. Instead, he gives Fugui a chest of shadow puppets which become his occupation and his salvation.
The film methodically examines each step of Fugui's life. The loss of his house 'turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Long'er is killed during the Civil War for being a member of the elite. Forming a puppetry troupe with his old friend Chungsheng, played wonderfully by Guo Tao, Fugui travels the countryside performing shadow puppetry for a living.
As Fugui and Cheungsheng search for their adopted Nationalist Army, they hear something in the distance. It builds into a roar, and their fear is tangible, Suddenly, tens of thousands of communist soldiers storm down the hill after them. Fugui and Chungsheng run, but it is futile. Like a stream of lava overtaking them, Mao's forces surround Fugui and Cheungsheng. This scene immediately distinguishes "To Live" from any other film in recent memory. It is the work of a craftsman with a lot of money to spend. It is the stuff that makes movies larger than life.
Fugui returns to his liberated village. As he reaches the entrance he sees Jiazhen and Fengxia delivering water door to door. Soon Fugui learns of his mother's death and that Fenxia, after a serious illness, is now mute. As always, life goes on.
When Fugui's son dies, he is consoled by the puppets and marriage of his daughter to the adoring Erxi. She becomes pregnant and Fugui and Jiazhen go to the hospital to offer support. All of the doctors, they soon learn, have been incarcerated as counter-revolutionaries. The impact of the Cultural Revolution is felt everywhere.
Erxi is able to recruit a famous doctor from the one of the "cow-pens"--internment camps. Weakened by starvation and abuse, he doctor is barely able to hold his bead up. As Fengxia enters labor, Fugui gets the doctor a basket of hot buns. The delivery is complicated and they call for the doctor, but has eaten so much be can't stand. Fengxia's life hangs by a thread and the only doctor for miles lies unconscious in the next room, stuffed with buns. Zhang Yimou takes inherently bland components and constructs a thing of beauty and dark humor.
Zhang Yimou is prone to relying on visual gimmicks. Whether it was the wine in "Red Sorghum", the lanterns in "Raise the Red Lantern" or the dyed fabric in "Ju Dou," his cinematic crutch is obvious and sometimes self-defeating--it forces the viewer into visual overload. "To Live" is a happy exception.
Many crucial scenes in "To Live" center around the puppet shows. Instead of including too much, Yimou leaves the audience asking for more. Lu Ye, the cinematographer allows the scenes to develop their own rich intensity. Nothing is forced. We are left with some breathtakingly gentle images.
With both Gong Li and Ge You coming from the set of "Fairwell My Concubine," Yimou and his former boss Chen Kaige seem content to share actors. Of course, when they are this talented, why not? Gong Li's performance is enthralling.
Certainly, there are inaccessible aspects to this film. The ubiquitous pictures of Chairman Mao probably mean little to an American audience, but Yimou's films can be enjoyed by all.
In a year when few memorable films were released "To Live" is a nice aberration. Zhang Yimou always entertains, but with this film he has created something special. Yimou has finally learned the lesson of moderation, and we are thankful for it.