Huozhe (To Live) (1994)



Director: Yimou Zhang.

Starring: You Ge (Xu Fugui), Li Gong (Xu Jiazhen), Ben Niu (Town Chief), Xiao Cong, Deng Fei (Xu Youqing), Tao Guo (Chunsheng), Wu Jiang (Wan Erxi), Zhang Lu, Dahong Ni (Long'er), Yan Su, Liu Tianchi (Xu Fengxia, as an adult).

a married couple experience the effects of the Communist victory, the Great Leap Forward, and The Cultural Revolution



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Fugui is gambling with dice with Long'er.  Long'er is wining time after time.  Out of ear shot of Fugui the debt accountant says to Long'er that he soon will have Fugui exactly where he wants him.  Fugui goes home and is berated by his father for excessive gambling.  Then his pregnant wife, Jiazhen, scolds him for the gambling.  She is worried about her daughter Fengxia's welfare with a gambling addicted husband/father.  She threatens to leave him and tells her husband: "You choose: gambling or family." 

Fugui is back gambling with Long'er.  Suddenly, Long'er announces to Fugui that the game is over because Fugui has lost everything and has nothing with which to gamble.  Long'er has planned this day for some time and now he will get Fugui's family mansion.  Bad news is followed by worse news.  Jiazhen leaves her husband.  At the meeting to clear up the debts, Fugui's father settles the debt with Long'er.  When that is over, father takes his cane and tries to bash his son with it shouting: "I want him dead!"  During the resulting tumult, the father dies. 

Fugui now has to sell needle and thread on the street.  He lives at a very simple level with his mother.  After a period of suffering, one day Jiazhen and daughter come home to Fugui, but with a new baby boy, Youging. 

A year later.  Long'er tells Fugui that he can make money with his musical talents if he takes his old metal shadow puppets and puts on shows.  Fugui travels with a troupe giving puppet shows at various places.  One day, a bayonet is thrust through his canvas on which the shadows are displayed.  It is 1949, a period of civil war with Chiang Kai-Shek and the communists under Mao Zedong.  Fugui and his friend Chunsheng are forced to go with the republican forces.  They see the outcome of a battle with thousands of dead and wounded republican soldiers.  At night the wounded start freezing to death.  The soldier Lao Quon has befriended the two puppeteers and the three get drunk. 

They wake up the next day to find everybody gone.  Lao Quon tells the two of them to surrender to the communist forces because it is better to be a prisoner-of-war of the communists because they treat their prisoners relatively well.  He knows, because he once was their prisoner.  He adds that they will send you home after awhile.  But then suddenly Lao is shot and killed from far distance.  And then a solid mass of communist soldiers start running to the two close friends.  They catch up to the two and completely surround them.  The two survive because they volunteer to entertain the troops with the shadow puppets. 

After awhile, Fugui is released and he goes home.  (His friend stayed with the communists to be what he had always wanted to be --  a truck driver.)  His wife is very relieved and happy to see him, not knowing where he was.  She has survived financially by delivering water, a job the local communist leader Mr. Niu got her.  His daughter cannot speak, the result of a bad illness while her father was away.  And his mother passed away. 

Fugui and family learn that Long'er has been arrested as a landlord.  The problem was that he would not let the government have a part of his mansion for them to use.  He is later found guilty and executed.  This worries Fugui and he asks his wife "What class are we?"  Fugui things life is strange, for if he had not lost his mansion to Long'er, it would have been he who was executed and not Long'er.  He adds: "It's good to be poor." 

1958.  The time of the Great Leap Forward with its emphasis on quick industrial expansion.  Fugui entertains the workers smelting steel and his wife continues delivering water.  The community leaders set up communal kitchens and the workers and families eat in a large dining area.  Fengxia and her brother Youging are very close.  He protects his sister from the local bullies, or at least tries.  She is a favorite target because she is different: she can't speak. 

Youging has not had much sleep and so his mother tells him to stay home rather than go to work.  But Fugui insists that the boy go, which he does.  Later in the day, Fugui learns that he son has been killed.  A jeep went out of control, because the driver had not slept for three days, and smashed into a wall collapsing it.  Youging was on the other side of that wall and was crushed to death.   The entire family is naturally distraught.  Jiazhen blames both herself (for not standing up to her husband in order to protect her son) and Fugui for forcing the boy to go to work.   The family are infuriated when they learn that the driver of the jeep was the District Chief.

The District Chief comes to visit the bereaved family.  This is when Fugui realizes that the man responsible for his son's death is none other than his old friend Chunsheng.  The family rejects Chunsheng's attempts to make amends.  Jiazhen shouts at him that he owes them a life. 

The 1960s.  The Cultural Revolution begins and lasts for ten years.  Its purges spread fear throughout China.  (Its leaders were later denounced and some executed.)  

1966, June. Mr. Nui tell Fugui that he must get rid of his shadow puppets.  They are too reactionary because the characters are all classic feudal types.  Bad new is followed with good news.  Mr. Nui wants to play matchmaker to Fugui's daughter.   The local leader of the Red Guard, Wan Erxi, wants to meet Fugui's daughter.  Mr. Nui thinks it will be a good match, because, like Fengxia, he also has a disability  --  one of his legs is lame. 

The first meeting does not go well.  Fengxia seems overwhelmed by shyness and Wan Erxi leaves the house without drinking tea with the parents.  Fugui and Jiazhen are worried and a bit upset over the meeting.  Then one day Fugui is told that a bunch of Red Guards are swarming over his house.  Fugui rushes home only to discover that Wan Erxi and his friends from work are fixing up the house.  A marriage is soon arranged.  The two marry and Fengxia is soon pregnant.

Chunsheng comes late at night to see Fugui at his home.  He tells his old friend that he has been arrested as a capitalist.   His wife has killed herself.  He tries to give Fugui a lot of money he had set up in a special account, but Fugui will not take it.  Chunsheng says that he does not want to live any more.  Moved by the conversation, Jiazhen comes out and actually speaks to Chunsheng.  As Chunsheng leaves, she shouts to him to remember that he still owes them a life, so he must guard his own. 

Fengxia is having her baby.  But her parents are worried.  There are no doctors at the hospital.  The Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution threw all of the older doctors out because they were perceived as reactionaries.  Afraid, they hatch a scheme to bring poor Dr. Wang (who looks very sick himself), once the head of obstetrics, to the hospital to be on call if the young female doctors encountered any problems.  Fengxia gives birth to a boy, who they call Little Bun.  Then suddenly Fengxia starts hemorrhaging a large quantity of blood.  They run to get Dr. Wang but find him incapacitated by the rolls they had given him to eat.  The starving doctor had overindulged and was wiped out.  They lose their daughter and Wan Erxi loses his wife. 

Some years later.  Fugui is playing with his grandson.  Later Fugui, Jiazhen, Wan Erxi and Little Bun visit the graves of Fengxia and Youqing looking somewhat content.  (P.S.  Chunsheng did not commit suicide.  Fugui saw him again, this time looking much happier.)


Very good film.  It covers the life of the Xu family showing how the family survived huge, difficult historical events over three decades of time.  The movie is a criticism of the harsh measures used by communist China to modernize itself.   The Xu family wanted above all to live; to survive the civil war and then survive modernization.  The Great Leap Forward indirectly killed their male child by overworking the District Chief who later fell asleep at the wheel of the truck that smashed the wall that collapsed on the boy.  And the Cultural Revolution indirectly killed their daughter because she died following childbirth because the older, more experienced doctors were thrown out for being reactionaries. 

The Xu family are happy with the little they have.  They are survivors and it is the love for family that keeps them going, to keep them living.  There is little criticism of communism per se in the movie, just its excesses.   (At times events are portrayed as a little too idyllic.)  The excesses of the communists were big excesses, especially the Cultural Revolution.  

Gong Li was terrific as Jiazhen.  The same applies to You Ge who played the part of Fugui. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

See Last Emperor (Bertolucci) (1987)


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