To Live

Main Story:
Understanding China: Five films

 (1994, directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Ge You and Gong Li)

Directed by one of China’s most celebrated directors, and featuring some of the best performances by leading actors, this is the first Chinese film to have its foreign distribution rights presold. To Live has never been officially shown in China because of its overt political message. (Of course, it is widely available via pirated DVDs.) The film tells an epic story of a family’s struggle to stay together through all the political upheaval between the Nationalist-Communist Civil War in 1946 and the early 1990s.

A movingly made social melodrama, the film forcefully captures the oppressive contrasts between the public sphere of the Chinese people during this period, which was marked by cautiousness and continuous attempts to prove loyalty to the regime with their private life, which centres on finding moments of fulfilment in families. Filled with black humour, the film captures the experience of many Chinese living through the civil war, the anti-rightist movements, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Not only does To Live provide a glimpse of all that Chinese people were forced to live through, it brings out the deep tensions and violent contradictions between private desires and the overly politicised public life they experienced during this period. Made just after Tiananmen Square, the film illustrates the sources of the deep antipathy toward politics that remains an important part of Chinese society. No other movie equals To Live’s portrayal of the impact of prolonged political turmoil on China’s people.