I spent years trying to convince myself that I wanted to be a journalist. I liked to write, but the idea of making a living as, say, a novelist felt too lofty and unlikely; here was a viable alternative, a profession within my reach. I took a Journalism course my Sophomore year of high school, which led to my becoming a staff writer on the student newspaper the next semester. By Senior year, I was the Features Editor; it seemed a no-brainer to apply at colleges that offered a major in the field.
Studying Journalism at Marquette University, I took courses in Newswriting and Reporting, Media Law and Copy Editing, Layout and Design and multiple ones with the word “communications” wedged in their titles (e.g., “Ethical Problems In Mass Communications”.) That I only made half-assed attempts at contributing to MU’s student newspaper alone should’ve been a red flag that perhaps I’d picked the wrong field of study. As much as I loved writing, it had slowly dawned on me what little use I had for other activities like interviewing, for one. Lacking the forwardness or drive of an investigate reporter, I was an introvert who’d rather write music reviews or personal essays. Still, I stuck with Journalism because I could think of no better alternative.
By Junior year, I also had to settle on a minor, which MU’s College of Communications required of all its students. Since we already had to take multiple courses in subjects like English, Philosophy and Sociology, most Journalism majors chose to minor in one of them (a few even navigated a double-major!) Others opted for fields within our college such as Advertising or Public Relations. As I browsed through a list of available minors, one for Film caught my eye. MU didn’t have a major in it, but it had another reason to offer film courses at all. Each undergraduate student had to take at least one Performing Arts class during their tenure—for instance, to reach the number of credits required for a degree, I selected one called “The History of Jazz” my final semester. However, MU usually offered at least two film courses per semester; if you completed six courses in one specific field, voila, you had yourself a minor.
Something about a minor in Film instinctually appealed to me more than any other option. At age 20, I didn’t consider myself a film buff at all. I liked watching movies in the same way that I enjoyed listening to music or reading books or viewing TV shows or visiting art museums. While still discovering who I was, I did know I valued popular culture and the fine arts more fervently than anything else. I wasn’t gifted at making things with my hands. I didn’t care about sports, politics or cars; I flailed in most of my science classes and studying something like law seemed completely foreign to me. I spent much of my free time browsing at used CD and record stores, taking out books and assorted media from libraries all over Milwaukee County, making occasional visits to area museums (including MU’s own Haggerty Museum of Art) and watching movies with friends. As far as I knew, this was all I wanted out of life.
To commence work on my Film minor, I signed up for two courses offered that fall. The first, “Film and Popular Culture” was in retrospect an anomaly as far as film courses go, for we only watched and studied three movies the entire semester: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Rocky and Chaplin*. Fortunately, the other course, “Film as Art” (nearly all MU film courses sported such generic titles) was the prize. Taught by a Theatre Arts faculty member, it was meant to be a more-or-less chronological overview of movies throughout the 20th century that one could, for whatever reason deem worthy of being “art”. However, before going all the way back to the 1920 silent expressionist horror-nightmare The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we kicked off that first class with a fairly recent example of arty film: Zhang Yimou’s To Live, which had tied with Russian film Burnt By The Sun for the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year before.
As the classroom lights dimmed, I immediately felt a twinge of panic for I had never watched a film with subtitles before. I must’ve anticipated that this could be an option in earning a Film minor, but it startled me that I was expected to tackle one this quickly. As the movie’s austere opening credits unfurled on the room’s retractable screen, I thought, “Dummy up, Chris,” (to use of one my Dad’s go-to expressions of whose origin remains a mystery to this day); “Surely you can keep up with the words on the screen and enjoy the movie, too.” After acclimating myself to the process of paying attention to both words and images, I quickly forgot about the extra effort I had to make and was soon wrapped up in the film’s narrative.
To Live could be classified as an epic in that it spans three decades comprising a tumultuous period in 20th century China, from the 1940s through the Maoist and Cultural Revolutions, concluding sometime in the early-mid 1970s. However, it feels more intimate and focused than the average epic by zeroing in on one family. Through them, it tracks how political and cultural upheaval affects the average citizen. When it begins, the main character, Fugui (Gou Ye) is a conceited rich man’s son whose gambling addiction results in the loss of his family’s palatial home, causing his pregnant wife Jiazhen (the director’s longtime muse, Gong Li) to leave him. By the film’s conclusion, Jiazhen and especially Fugui barely resemble their younger counterparts both in appearance and in temperament; long reunited, they now reside in a very modest home and have suffered immeasurable personal loss in tandem with what their country has endured.
It would be a stretch to say the film has anything approaching an experimental narrative: it proceeds chronologically, divided into four sections, each one beginning with a shot of the same street, allowing the viewer to track how it evolves with each leap in time. Fugui’s character arc is a recognizable one: that of someone who loses his wealth and place in life by his own fault but is then thrown further into disarray by massive circumstances beyond his control. He continually adapts to the new normal because he has no other choice.
To Live provides a sweeping overview of a country in transition. When it begins in the late 1940s, remnants of imperialism are strongly felt, particularly in the way young Fugui swaggeringly carries himself, supporting his gambling habit by dipping into a financial well he believes will never run out, until it does. After he loses everything, his former rival gifts him a set of shadow puppets which allows Fugui to reinvent himself as a street performer. In the middle of a show, he and his partner, Chunsheng are drafted into the Republic of China Armed Forces to fight the communist People’s Liberation Army. In time, the latter captures them, although they survive by performing politicized versions of their craft for the troops.
After the war, Fugui and Jiazhen reunite and adjust to China as a Communist Republic, raising a daughter, Fengxia (who is mute and hard of hearing) and a younger son, Youqing. The film then jumps ahead a few years to the Great Leap Forward in 1958, where we see just how different their lives now are. In comparison to their pre-war digs, their home is simple, austere, even. They work delivering water to their neighbors and are encouraged to donate all their pots and pans in order to produce steel for the military to fight China’s enemy, Taiwan. The children are even drafted to help smelt the steel, which leads to an overworked Youqing’s death when the District Chief (who is revealed to be Fugui’s ex-partner Chunsheng) accidentally runs his car into a wall, crushing Youqing who has fallen asleep on the other side.
Following Youqing’s burial, the film jumps further ahead to the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The characters’ clothing is now grey and utilitarian and their home is decked out in images of Mao and littered with copies of The Little Red Book. Propaganda is dominant everywhere, even in the choice of a suitor for Fengxia: Wan Erxi, a local leader of the Red Guards who walks with a limp. He turns out to be a kind soul, however, and Fengxia agrees to marry him. However, when the time comes for her to give birth to a son, the local hospital is staffed with inexperienced young medical students and loyal party members; the actual doctors have all been sent away for hard labor due to being “overeducated”. The staff does not know how to deal with complications following Fengxia’s birth and although her baby boy (named “Little Bun”) survives, she dies of a postpartum hemorrhage. The film concludes six years later as Fugui and Jiazhen (accompanied by Erxi and Little Bun) visit their children’s graves.
That first screening of To Live, I left the classroom afterwards feeling blown away by the story, thinking I had never seen anything like it before; now I understand that it was the depiction of a foreign culture that was new to me. I’d seen other movies set in different lands and time periods, but they were predominantly secondhand, coming from the point of view of someone outside of them. My first encounter with seeing Japan onscreen, for example, came from The Karate Kid, Part II, but at that point I hadn’t watched anything written and directed by an actual Japanese filmmaker like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Ozu. I’m certain my exposure to anything authentically Chinese was even more limited if not Americanized (watching episodes of Yan Can Cook on PBS, while entertaining, hardly provided a searing look into Chinese society.)
To Live enabled me to learn about a place and a time far different from my own. Yet, it remained something I could relate to. I watched with trepidation as Fugui foolishly gambled his family home away. I was moved when, having survived being a pawn for both sides of the Chinese Civil War, a reformed Fugui returned to his village and reunited with a welcoming Jiazhen. I laughed a great deal later when Youqing got his revenge on the boy tormenting Fengxia by pouring a big bowl of noodles doused in hot chili sauce over his head at a communal kitchen. I felt devastated when Youqing, and then later Fengxia both met accidental deaths at the hands of a mismanaged society.
Those tragedies the film depicts reinforce the notion that it is not a celebration of modern Chinese history but rather a searing critique. Despite the acclaim it garnered on an international level, it was banned in its home country and it’s not difficult to understand why. As the film hurtles forward in time, the consequences of a society drastically transformed by ideology are omnipresent and deeply felt. Often, Zhang is able to poke gentle fun at the absurdity of this nationalist pageantry witnessed even at a local level, like the smelted steel proudly paraded through the neighborhood, carried on a throne wrapped in a big red ribbon (“It’s enough for three cannonballs!”, the town leader exclaims) or even Fengxia and Erxi’s wedding, where their pledge to remain faithful to Chairman Mao takes precedence over any to each other.
Zhang implores the viewer to be amused at these displays, but he doesn’t shy away from how the new regime ultimately values ideas over its people. The fields full of dead soldiers Fugui and Chunsheng navigate their way through during the war foreshadows that radical change does not come without casualties. Post-war, Fugui repeatedly attempts to find acceptance, to keep up appearances and do what is required of him and his family in this new society. The fate of the man he gambled his home away to (death by execution for burning it to the ground rather than giving it to the government) startles him into submission. Fugui tells Youqing, “We can’t be politically backward,” but for all his effort, this new society fails him. While he and his wife survive into old age, both of their children perish in accidents that are nonetheless partially due to negligence of the state.
For all its criticism, To Live concludes with a moment of grace. After visiting Fengxia’s and Youqing’s graves, Fugui and Jiazhen return home with Erxi and Little Bun, the latter carrying a box of chicks he acquired on the trip. Fugui suggests they move the chicks over to a larger wooden box—the one that once held his puppets which he was forced to burn during the Cultural Revolution. Fugui then repeats to Little Bun a proverb that he once told to Youqing about how the chicks will grow up into geese, then sheep, then oxen. When Youqing asked him what came after oxen, Fugui replied, “Communism.” Now, he tells his grandson that after they have oxen, he’ll grow up, “ride on trains and planes… and life will get better and better.” In this, he implies that communist China is no longer the whole world, but merely one part of it.
Adapted from a novel by Hua Yu, To Live is a lovingly crafted, effectively moving film with great work from its leads (Gou Ye became the first Chinese man to win an acting award at Cannes.) Still, I think it had such a resounding impact on me primarily because it happened to be the first foreign language film I ever watched. I might’ve had a similar experience if the instructor had shown us another contemporary Asian film like Chungking Express, A Brighter Summer Day or Eat Drink Man Woman; he could’ve even screened another of Zhang’s films such as Raise The Red Lantern or Ju Dou. He just happened to pick To Live and I was in the right place at the right time to encounter and respond to it.**
That semester, we’d watch movies as disparate as Battleship Potemkin and North By Northwest, 42nd Street and Double Indemnity, Babette’s Feast and Bonnie and Clyde. Most of them (maybe not Potemkin, which I haven’t revisited since) served as illuminating windows onto other worlds—not only various cultures and time periods, but also different approaches to filmmaking and telling stories. By the semester’s end, I knew in my heart that film meant so much more to me than journalism ever would. In a sense, “Film as Art” and To Live in particular were instrumental in pushing me towards what course I’d take in life.
*Has any other film course screened Chaplin for its students since then (apart from maybe a course on Chaplin himself)? It was relatively new at the time, but as an example of how film reflects popular culture, surely there were better, more relevant choices.
**At this writing, To Live is not on any streaming services (I rewatched it in not an entirely legal way); its 2003 DVD is also long out of print, as is its immediate predecessor in Zhang’s filmography, The Story of Qiu Ju (which I’d rate as highly.) Fortunately, other acclaimed films of his from this period such as Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad are available to stream.)
Essay #3 of 24 Frames.
Go Back to #2: The Piano.
Go Ahead to #4: Trainspotting