The film tracks the lives of Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) at the start of the 1940’s, just as the rumblings of Communism were about to spill over into Civil War, all the way through the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. At the start of the film Xu Fugui is the son of a rich landowner, but his appetite for gambling soon leaves him homeless and without his wife and children. Left alone he must make a living selling wares like a common street vendor and this existence quickly humbles him. Jiazhen soon returns to him, mainly out of love but also pity for what has become of her once arrogant husband, and he makes a simple promise to her; never to gamble again and to offer her the simple quiet life she wants. With his family back to him though Fugui must now find a way to support all of them and he comes begging to Long’er, the man who won all of Fugui’s money and mansion, for a loan. Long’er, smug and relishing the power he holds over a man like Fugui, denies him the money he wants and instead loans him the puppets from the shadow puppet troupe he ran before becoming a wealthy landowner. Assembling his own troupe Fugui travels the countryside playing for whatever audience he can attract, but through sheer bad luck is captured and conscripted into the Kuomintang army. Throughout the film Fugui and Jiazhen are allowed brief moments of genuine happiness, but this happiness is always tempered with the sad facts of life. Those we love inevitably die, friends betray us, and the world is indifferent to the sorrows of common folk.
It is a well-worn fact that Houzhe (To Live) was banned in China during its initial release and the director, Zhang Yimou, was himself banned from filmmaking for 2 years. The film’s critical eye towards the policies of the Communist regime doesn’t make the film a typical run of the mill Anti-Communist propaganda. Communism is at the heart of the narrative structure. One can’t watch a single frame of the film without noticing Mao’s face, Communist Party propaganda and imagery, and even the color red is present in every shot of Houzhe (To Live). Yet instead of taking a hindsight approach to his characters; e.g. looking down upon them for being clueless as to the end results of their allegiance to the Communists, Zhang focuses on his characters; their lives, motivations; in short he allows us a peek into their souls. Fugui and Jiazhen initially follow the Communists not so much because of a diehard belief in their rhetoric and policies, but because they promised them a better life. Those caught up in the winds of important historical events are never aware of the great changes that will follow. No one thinks in such a grand scale; the common man is concerned with the simple necessities in life that will allow him to continue living on for another day. Zhang paints Communism’s attraction not as some holy crusade to wash away the dirt of Capitalism, but as a stepping-stone in China’s history towards better more promising times. Whether it be a Communist regime or Capitalist rule Fugui and Jiazhen will be faced with the same hardships. No ideology can offer anyone blanket security.
Gong Li, Zhang’s muse, embodies the pragmatism that many Chinese had once the Communists took power. Her character, Jiazhen, understands better even than her husband that blind allegiance to any party is a sign of hubris. Time and again she sees clearly while all the other people around her, mostly men, are too blind to see; ideology is spoiled through human practice. The price for China’s progress costs her the life of her only son and daughter. She weeps for them, but it is only after the fact that her husband finally loses his enthusiasm for all the empty promises Communism was supposed to bring. In the film we watch Gong’s face go from sweet and lovely to maturing into a grey-haired matronly grandmother; she has lost none of her beauty but wisdom from experience has taught her to not expect much from this life.
Ge You, who rightfully won the Best Actor prize for the 1994 Cannes Film festival, is not merely a cipher for the plot. Although he is supposed to embody the everyman who is living and witnessing the great upheavals in China’s past, the scenes he’s in have a freshness, a of-the-moment quality, and his understated performance lends the film a documentary feeling. Fugui’s humbling and reformation from a gambling louse to devoted family man is believable not because of melodramatic plot machinations but because Ge plays Fugui as a man who is a victim of mob mentality. His wife begs him to keep his promise to not gamble but instead of listening to her he continues playing, not wanting to lose face to the other players in the gambling den. He humiliates his young son, Youqing, at the community canteen and is directly responsible for his later death because he is afraid the town will ostracize and label them as reactionaries and enemies of the state. And finally his daughter, Fengxia, is a victim of Fugui’s passivity; she is fated to die because no one is willing to question the Red Guards extremist policies. As Fengxia bleeds to death, the color red that up to that point in the film represented Communism’s Great Leap Forward into the 21st century now comes to be a metaphor for what China’s lost as it pushes its people into the future.
With all this said though Houzhe (To Live) is not a completely dour dramatic exercise. Zhang peppers the film with subtle comic moments, like when the village chief recounts how his family home had been set ablaze and burned for several days because Fugui’s house was constructed from first-rate timber. Or when Long’er, Fugui’s opponent from his gambling days, is sentenced to death. We are not privy to the actual execution but are instead given a scene of Fugui scrambling around the back alleys looking for a place to pee; the sound of gun shots from the firing squad are juxtaposed with an image of Fugui, his back turned to us, literally pissing himself, as if the bullets were really piercing him. What could have been a moment of divine justice is played for laughs; the great irony being that if not for Fugui’s bad luck it would have been him facing the firing squad and not Long’er.
Besides the prevalence of Mao imagery and Communist paraphernalia the other visual motif used throughout the film are the shadow puppets. They represent different things at various times in the film but overall I believe that ultimately they represent vitality and hope. The shadow puppets allow Fugui a way to make a living and support his family. The puppet troupe plays to the steel workers and the town makes their quota for the month. There is a genuine look of satisfaction and enjoyment in Fugui’s face as he performs for people. Although the Communist party may look at the puppets as representative of the old guard, what they really mean to the townsfolk and Fugui’s family specifically is that they are vestigial reminders of a once happier time.
Houzhe (To Live) in my humble opinion is a masterpiece because although the film does offer audiences a positive message, to continue living and not let the many tragedies in your life cripple you, it does this honestly through its characters. Zhang Yimou never forgets that history is not something that is already dead and can be studied like a corpse; the past is alive and if we are to learn from it we must turn to the people who went through it and not just to textbooks which relay mostly just static truths and broad general perspectives. Ultimately what makes me return to Houzhe (To Live) is that it paints life as not something wholly wonderful or wholly tragic it merely just is; to survive we must take the bitter with the sweet.