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‘To Live’: A Sweeping Saga of Modern China : Movie review: Zhang Yimou’s superb film possesses both vast scope and intimacy, richness of incident and an awareness of the quixotic role fate plays in all our destinies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zhang Yimou’s masterful, stirring “To Live” takes us from the turbulent, treacherous China of the ‘40s civil war to the brutal Cultural Revolution and beyond through the lives of one couple, who in the course of hardship and tragedy emerge as symbolic of the ordinary Chinese and their capacity to endure and to hope for a better future.

Based on Yu Hua’s “Lifetimes,” the superb “To Live” is fortunately more absorbing than grueling--and it is indeed the latter. It possesses both vast scope and intimacy, humor and sorrow, complex characterizations, richness of incident and an awareness of the quixotic role fate plays in all our destinies.

It is the latest triumph of China’s most renowned filmmaker, whose 1988 debut feature, “Red Sorghum,” won international acclaim and whose “Ju Dou” (1990) and “Raise the Red Lantern” (1992) received Oscar nominations for best foreign film. In adapting his own novel to the screen, Yu Hua’s co-writer was Lu Wei, who also wrote the screenplay for Chen Kaige’s towering “Farewell My Concubine.”

In a small village in Northern China an indolent young man, Xu Fugui (Ge You), gambles away his family’s fortune to the extent that he loses his family’s ancient, magnificent townhouse. The man (Ni Dahong) to whom Fugui lost his ancestral home refuses to lend him money but lends him something that proves to be of far greater value: an old chest filled with his shadow puppets--the one thing that diverted Fugui during his gambling days.

He has a real aptitude for putting on puppet shows with these lacy figures; more than once the puppets, so suggestive of the human predicament, will prove to be his salvation and that of his family.

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Fugui’s beautiful wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li), dreams modestly of living a quiet life with her family but almost immediately the Communists win control of the country. From here on the couple’s life will be hard, blighted by terrible tragedy yet also sustained by their steadfast mutual love and devotion, and by warm camaraderie of friends and neighbors.

By now what many mainstream Chinese have had to endure under Communism is common knowledge around the world, yet “To Live’s” forthright depictions of the hardships and sacrifices incurred by the revolution itself, the Great Leap Forward in industrial production in the ‘50s and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution of the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, have brought down the wrath of the Chinese government upon Zhang and his film.

As punishment for Zhang illegally distributing his picture, he has been forbidden to make films in China with foreign financing for the next two years, and he and Gong Li, the radiant star of all his films, may not present or discuss in any context their film, which earlier this year won the grand jury prize at Cannes and a best actor award for Ge You.

The cruel irony of this banishment is that the epic vision of “To Live” moves beyond the critical to the historical; it celebrates all people at anytime, anyplace, who persist in the face of cataclysmic social, political and economic upheaval.

It is also notably fair-minded; you could easily make a case that the advent of communism was the instrument of Fugui’s salvation, turning him from a totally irresponsible archetypal representative of the decadent ruling class into a proletarian hero, a strong and responsible husband and father in the face of grim adversity and loss. Similarly, the man (Niu Ben) who becomes the leader of the new Communist system in Fugui’s village is a wise, kind individual, a practical man and not a knee-jerk political ideologue.

However, Zhang does not shy away from the horrors of the crazed Cultural Revolution with its cadres of hysterical young people raging through the streets, pursuing their savage inquisition. Yet in the film’s most stunning sequence, Zhang expresses the absurdity of this long ordeal by injecting dark humor in a tragic situation.

When a young woman in childbirth starts hemorrhaging, student nurses do not know what to do because the hospital’s professional staff has been carted off to a concentration camp. A frail doctor (Zhao Yuxiu) is in the last moment sprung from captivity, but he’s so weak from beatings and starvation that his oddly comical nonstop gorging on dumplings makes him too sick to attend to the woman.

“To Live,” which has been gloriously photographed by Lu Ye, is a remarkable accomplishment, spanning many years with both vibrant passion and absolute conviction. It is the most straightforward of all of Zhang’s films, and its simplicity of style serves perfectly its great themes, which are timeless and universal.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: considerable realistic violence, too intense and harrowing for children.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘To Live’

Ge You: Fugui Gong Li: Jiazhen Niu Ben: Town Chief Niu Guo Tao: Chunsheng A Samuel Goldwyn Co. and ERA International (Hong Kong) Ltd. presentation in association with Shanghai Film Studios. Director Zhang Yimou. Producer Chiu Fusheng. Executive producers Christopher Tseng, Kow Fuhong. Screenplay by Yu Hua and Lu Wei; based on the novel “Lifetimes” by Yu Hua. Cinematographer Lu Yue. Editor Du Yuan. Costumes Dong Huamiao. Music Zhao Jiping. Art director Cao Jiuping. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.

* In limited release at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741; Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; and the Westside Pavilion, Pico Boulevard between Overland Avenue and Westwood Boulevard, West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202.


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