Director: Zhang Yimou 1994
For those of you too young to remember, there was once a time in China when we didn't have the wherewithal to cover every conceivable piece of large-scale architecture with white ceramic tile and blue tinted plexiglass; a time before we knew the importance of stabbing gaudy metal signs into little plots of grass instructing passers-by to "be a friend to the earth"; a time before the wonders of SMS made an unlimited supply of dirty jokes available to the masses at an affordable RMB1 Jiao (US$0.012) per pop.
It was a simpler time, when there was just plain old feudalism, corruption, war and ideological insanity.
Zhang Yimou's now classic 1994 epic To Live (aka Lifetimes in some DVD editions) is the pre-White Ceramic Tile Era story of modern China's version of Job.
In a role that garnered him the Best Actor award at Cannes, Ge You plays Fu Gui, the simple-minded scion of a once thriving feudal household. The 1940's equivalent of a trust-fund baby Fu Gui is a man with good intentions, bad luck, and horrible timing.
After bankrupting the family at the local gambling den, Fu Gui estranges his wife (played by Gong Li), breaks his father's heart, and winds up hawking needles and thread on the street.
Fu Gui eventually hits the road as a puppeteer, and for the next three decades encounters every brand of man-made pestilence the 40s, 50s, and 60s had to offer: Civil War, famine, anti-Rightist movements, the Cultural Revolution, and the loss of his deaf-mute daughter in childbirth at a Red Guard-operated hospital devoid of trained physicians.
Equal parts Job, Catch-22 and Forrest Gump, Zhang Yimou's To Live is a finely wrought, an oddly humorous, study of humanity's ability to find existential rhyme and reason even in the most absurdly tragic circumstances.
(Cityweekend January 15, 2003)