Starring: Gong Li, Ge You, Niu Ben
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 132 mins
To Live is a Chinese film about the life of the humble Xu family, from their downfall from landlord class to peasantry in the 1940s to their tough times under the brutal Communist regime of Mao Zedong from 1949-76.
This is a fascinating and emotional human story of epic proportions. The way that it effortlessly spans four decades is hugely impressive, and, coupled with great acting and writing, this is definitely a fantastic historical drama.
The best part of this film is the way that it tells the history of China over the course of these four decades as a secondary story line to the life of the Xu family. The main characters all get caught up in the events of the mid-20th Century, but this film looks at the history from a different perspective, showing its impact on ordinary people’s lives instead of the greater implications for China.
This is one of the fifth generation films that was banned in China for criticising Communist campaigns, but, like such films as Farewell My Concubine, it doesn’t feel pushy and aggressive in its criticisms of the Mao regime, due to that focus on the human element of the story instead of the larger political one.
Throughout the course of these years, you really get to know the main characters well, making the heavier bits all the more emotional, and there are indeed a lot of sad moments here that will tug at your heartstrings. However, the connection that you make with the characters largely comes down to the excellent acting, particularly by You Ge and Li Gong, whose characters initially present themselves as somewhat dislikeable, but develop convincingly and naturally enough for you to grow a strong attachment to them over the years.
What’s more is that the way that this film covers such a long period of time is so swift, thanks to the fantastic writing, which ties together huge time jumps with ease, and makes that transition, which can often be awkward to watch, a whole lot easier for you to adjust to.
The only issue with this film is that, although it successfully spans this long time period and keeps the story interesting throughout, there is the odd period throughout where there is little emotional drama or historical intrigue, and it can drag a little, extending the runtime to 132 minutes that could have been a little shorter.
However, this film is on the whole very impressive, with strong performances and writing complementing a fascinating and emotional human story over an epically long period of time.