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To Live

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Directed by Zhang Yimou

Screenplay by Yu Hua and Lu Wei, 1994

VHS/DVD. Color. 2 hours 13 minutes.

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In the last ten years the groundbreaking feature film To Live (Huo Zhe), directed by Zhang Yimou, has offered filmgoers, educators, and China watchers an intimate glimpse at the lives of one fictional family (the Xu family) as they live through critical moments of four decades of China’s twentieth century history. Combined with stunning dramatic visuals and a window into Chinese film and censorship, this feature has been a hit with World and Asian history classes at the secondary and undergraduate levels since its release in 1994. This review provides a brief synopsis of this internationally recognized film and suggested teaching strategies.

Set in a small town in northern China, the film begins in the 1940s. The opening scenes take us into a gambling house where we are introduced to Fugui, played by the famous Chinese comedy actor Ge You. Fugui, arrogant and smug, is deeply involved in his gambling pursuits. Against the protests of his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li), he continues to gamble his family worth away with his dice throwing companion Long’er. Eventually he loses everything: the family mansion, his father, his pregnant wife, and his daughter. Time passes and we see him struggling to make ends meet, but since his gambling days are over, Jiazhen returns to him. Now they can begin to live the peaceful and quiet life that Jiazhen always wanted. However, any student of China’s twentieth-century history will understand that a quiet life, even for the most common family, is not possible. Tragedy and devastation will visit again and again as the Xu family continues to struggle through the circle of ironic fate they must endure.