The puppets enable Fugui to regain his self-esteem and give him a sense of creativity, as he is now capable of articulating his thoughts through the puppets. He is able to make a better living as a traveling entertainer than as a seller of needles and thread.
When it became too painful to live in his old town where he was once so wealthy, Fugui flees and goes on the road with the Nationalist Army. When the communists are obviously going to win, he easily and quickly switches alliances, just as easily as he gambled his life's fortune away. Following the Red Army, he makes his way back to his old town and life and is reunited with his family, who now accept their newly chastised father. Fugui throws himself into the New China, praising Maoism for what it has taught him about virtue, discipline, and the best way to live life. His earlier decadence seems to validate Maoist assumptions and he rejects of his old ways.
But the communist revolution or fate is hardly portrayed in a positive way in "To Live." Like the decadent aristocracy, it also becomes corrupt with the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Due to no fault of the family, Xu Fugui's daughter goes deaf and mute after a long illness. The only man who will marry her is lame, a factory worker far different than the wealthy man envisioned as her husband when she was still a baby. She dies in childbirth because there is no one in the hospital where she gives birth who knows anything about medicine -- higher knowledge and anything intellectual is a forbidden art during Mao's revolution. Doctors are imprisoned as criminals the only doctor available is suffering from indigestion. The scene is funny, sad, horrifying, and tragic all at once. The only hope is Fugui's grandson, whom the old man grows to love. He marvels at the great changes he has overseen during his life, as he looks at the young boy and also wonders what the child will see and suffer as he grows.
The film is...
They are strung together, some cruel, some kind such as Fugui's reunion with his child, and some heartbreaking like the realization that Fugui's daughter is deaf. All events are united simply by a single theme -- the tide of history is overwhelming and it sweeps people up. People are helpless to resist it, they can only bend with the waves and try to survive and live to see the next generation.
The film is an epic in that it encompasses almost every historical development of Chinese history in recent memory -- the waning days of Imperial China, the civil war, Mao's take over of the government, famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the current shift to modernization -- yet it is also intensely personal. Its hero is fallible, yet greater historical forces affect fate than can be controlled by moral goodness or evil. The 'purest' character, after all, the couple's deaf daughter, meets the saddest fate. Almost all of the characters are morally ambiguous, neither good nor bad -- even the man who takes away Fugui's house shows compassion to him when he gives him the puppets, and Fugui himself has moments of genuine compassion and alternated with moments of cruelness and pettiness.
The film raises profound moral questions that are not limited to China -- how much responsibility do we have for the fates we meet in our lives? How much is historical circumstance and chance, and how much is our own moral worth and ability? In today's economic climate, "To Live" gives a viewer pause because it suggests that money comes and goes, regardless of the moral worth of the individual. Simply staying alive is a gamble.
To Live." Directed by Yimou…
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