Late in the story, To Live bares its theme in an interchange of dialogue between its central male character, Fugui, and Chunsheng, the only person in the story who Fugui might want to call a friend. Having met each other as unwilling and clearly apolitical participants in the late-1940s war for the control of China, Chunsheng is later found responsible for an accident that claims the life of Fugui’s son. Now, years later, Chunsheng tells Fugui that his wife has disappeared and that he no longer wants to live. Appearing haunted by the accumulation of tragedies and disappointments that have afflicted his life, Chunsheng’s function as a narrative counterpoint to Fugui suddenly becomes apparent. Fugui tells him, “I know what you’re feeling. But we must keep going, no matter how hard it is. We must endure.” Chunsheng responds “I can’t endure much more,” and he soon wanders away into the darkness. While his fate remains ambiguous, we are led to believe that Chunsheng, like Fugui, will keep struggling to live. I think the crucial part of this exchange is the information concerning Chunsheng’s wife. It is because of her absence that he loses the will and persistence to continue a difficult existence. In contrast, Fugui’s wife Jiazhen is his near-constant source of support, information and correction. If To Live depicts Mao Tse-tung, through the effects of his policies, as an absolute patriarch, Jiazhen is constructed in symbolic opposition as a matriarch whose convictions and attitudes serve to define and bring meaning to the social oppression inflicted by Maoism. And who better to occupy the place of the maternal national voice than the director’s (now ex-) lover? The project to read reflexive meanings into the collaborations of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li should, I think, begin with To Live.
Fortunately, for those of you still reading, I’m not going to comment any further on such an abstract project because To Live also offers a wonderful impression of actual social experience just before, during and just after China’s period of full Maoist communism. To Live is not a history lesson, but it is accommodating to audiences unfamiliar with the things that happened in China between the 1940s and the 1970s. The key bit of knowledge required is that Mao’s policies enforced sweeping social transformations. To Live portrays these changes in a direct symbolic fashion by showing how these national strategies affect the individual lives of Jiazhen and Fugui. Just prior to Mao’s resetting of the calendar to year zero in 1949, Fugui gambles away all his money and Jiazhen temporarily leaves him. The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) respectively coincide with (well, cause) the deaths of their son and daughter. The survival of their granddaughter into the post-Mao era symbolises hope for a less constrained standard of life.
If analytical textbooks and political commentaries are not your cup of cha, then To Live might just provide a welcome glimpse of social realism largely absent in those kinds of accounts. It is worth noting, however, that all of Zhang’s films are objects safely de-politicised for the consumption of Western arthouse audiences, so do not expect an especially accurate depiction of communist China. Rather, to appreciate the illuminative value of To Live and other films like it, I think it is instructive to return to that conversation between Chunsheng and Fugui. Living (in any place, at any time) is often a painful, disorientating and seemingly meaningless experience, but isn’t our struggle against such problems in itself a valuable, rewarding and meaningful part of life?