“Under the big political umbrella, a man is just like a leaf in the ocean, with no control of his destiny and does not have any choice.”- Zhang Yimou
Global Chinese Cinema
There are various ways to define Global Chinese Cinema, depending on how one views it. It is not to be confused with China Cinema. The world ‘global’ in Global Chinese Cinema demonstrates that transnational flows of culture are incorporated into films (Iwabuchi K., 2002). This adds value to the films where directors infuse their ideology in their film making process. That being said, Chinese Cinema is plural and transnational, and can only be understood in its properly transnational context (Hsiao S., 1997).
As transnational productions become increasingly common, these then give rise to questions of politics and nationalism, in particular to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Communism may not necessarily be the right way to go about and with such strains, it occurs to us that the “Greater China” concept is facile and is even further to attain than we actually think it is. Simply said, “One China” is going to merely be a façade.
Global Chinese Presence in Transnational Cinema
Chinese visibility in Hollywood sees an immense rise, spurred by modernised Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, and Wayne Wang, and international Chinese artists such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi (Chan K., 2009). Nevertheless, these Chinese directors and artists have mostly had challenging processes in enabling their films to successfully reach out to the world globally, due to the fear of cultural commodification.
The thing that comes to mind, when we mention the increasing popularity of Chinese Cinema internationally, would be the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. This group of directors – Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wu Ziniu and Huang Jianxin, marked a turning point in the history of Chinese cinema, during the 1980s and early 1990s. Their films reach out to an international audience due to its realism, powerful social commentary, spectacular visual imagery and high production values (EN Academic, 2016), winning them international acclaim. It is extremely sensational, as their films reflect on Chinese history and engage in political or cultural critique.
In particular, we have Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most high-profile directors (Farquhar M., 2002), who certainly did not experienced a smooth sailing journey in making his films. His films were usually thought-provoking as he daringly criticised state policies within historical context.
The Arduous Journey
The reputations of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers have not fared as well in China as it has internationally as some Chinese faulted them of pandering to a Western appetite for exoticism (EN Academic, 2016). Pertaining to Zhang Yimou, several of his films portray various configurations of the ‘Greater China’, hence, while Zhang Yimou hopes for his films to spread knowledge about China, aiming for his viewers to gain “cultural and historical information” from his work (BBC News, 2005), some Chinese critics do not share his sentiments.
One of his best filmography, ‘To Live’, explored into the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people during the upheavals throughout Chinese politics of the 20th century. It showcases the harsh conditions and environments of rustic areas during that era (Lee A., 2016). Winning many awards, the film is for sure an epitome, highlighting key events such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution during Mao Zedong’s time. It makes viewers think deeper on issues regarding the Chinese search for cultural identity, the impacts of political decisions and the government legitimacy. Yet, the film was however banned in China by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, due to the film’s critical portrayal of the Chinese Communist Party’s various policies and campaigns (Ferlazzo P., 2010). This brings us to realise how politically sensitive the film is, whereby it could potentially posed a threat to the CCP legitimacy. Still, it is one of the best films on China history of all times.
To Live: For the Better of China
The film, based on the context of the late 1940s to 1970s China after the Chinese Civil War, showed the CCP reigning and with the implementations of several policies such as The Great Leap Forward, aims to reform the old society for the better, improving the lives of peasants. Women looked hopefully towards Mao’s communist reforms as they were hailed as holding up “half the sky”, promising equality to them (Tao J., Zheng, B., & Mow, S., 2004). Indeed, in the film, women were working alongside with the men and seemingly also contribute significantly to the economic and society. Gong Li’s role in the film as Jia Zhen seemingly carries a metaphorical overtone, where her understated sense of quiet and feminine passion perfectly portrays a feminist symbolism. Truth be told, women in China saw improvements in their lives where they get greater voice. Marriage laws were rewritten, giving more rights towards women to allow for divorce, child support and property rights and they saw improved working conditions with additional benefits and opportunities for leadership (Long K., 1996). These are probably some of the real betterment of the Chinese people during Mao’s era.
Mao’s belief was to overthrow old power structures whereby the way to go about doing it was by splitting the wealth and land of the rich (Heywood A., 1998). In Mao’s attempt to develop Chinese agriculture and industry, families in a region formed teams and each team were given specific work to do. At first glance, ‘To Live’ does truly seem to portray that the peasants’ lives were improving whereby the commune provided basically everything that the peasants needed, from basic necessities to even entertainment. Aimed at modernizing and developing the country’s infra-structure, industry, and prosperity, the CCP developed a set of five-year plans which required the whole country’s effort. There appears to be so much team work in scenes where everyone gathered to donate or collect scrap irons. Everything seems pleasant, where foods (and sometimes delicacies for the people eg. jiaozi) are available, and work done is being shared when ‘village team’ are given specific work to do.
To Live: Death as an Effective Political Critique
However, at a closer look of the film, all is not that pleasant, especially not when the film is filled with multiple deaths of characters in the story. Deaths in this film are as though an effective political critique, criticizing the CCP’s leadership due to their poor policies and campaigns. While peasants may looked happy and united in the beginning of the film through villages celebrations as they portray optimism for the future through their spirit of community and togetherness, the poor and harsh condition that they are living and working in tells us otherwise. Many landlords were killed as can be seen in the killing of Long-er. Other times, individuals were charged with counterrevolutionaries or rightists, which meant that they did not support the aims of the CCP, or are suspected to be associated or affiliated with the Nationalists. As the film progress, the CCP revolution is increasingly blamed for the Fu Gui’s family tragedies. First, his son passed away due to Fu Gui’ old friend (Chung Sheng) carelessness and Jia Zhen’s “You owe us a life” to him impact so greatly to the audience that it becomes a refrain that resonates throughout the whole film. Next, his daughter, Feng Xia, also passed away when there was no professional doctors to attend to her during her labour as the ‘reactionary doctors’ have been taken away from the hospital, leaving only inept students behind. The deaths of kin and friends demonstrate how China politics impacted individuals severely as they were all only pawns to Mao’s ruling. This highlights the extremism of Mao’s ideology.
Also, history tells us that these tumultuous periods ended up resulting in the Great Chinese Famine that lasted 3 years (Griner A., 2016) whereby at the end of the day, the commune could not provide everything that the peasants needed. Fact is that, the CCP revolution was so extreme that their slogans include ‘destroying the old’, and they have absolutely no tolerance for any misgivings, where any cultural symbolisms were destroyed. Religious centres were not allowed, schools were closed just because of the aim to overthrow any existing old traditions (ACF China, 2013). In fact, Great Leap Forwards see the greatest mass killing in world history where 45 million of people were killed over 4 years (Akbar A., 2010). The political impacts from these implementations simply tell us the weakness of Mao’s and the CCP ruling.
To Live: CCP is Propaganda-Filled
From the film, we get to see and experience first-hand view on how the CCP force-fed people living in China during that era on their greatness, through the repetitive portrayal of the CCP’s greatness. For a long time, Chinese films have been too abstract, conceptual and gimmicky where they do not relate at all (Zhang Y., 2010). Throughout the film, it educates us that Chairman Mao was a suffocating impression whereby people were made to worship him as his portrait were painted or pasted everywhere among the peasantry. With such intensive propaganda, peasants may be united but are fooled in thinking that they are happier and better off. What this portray essentially is that, the CCP has propagate so much to the extent that citizens were as though mindless, subservient puppet and “all it took was one word from the higher-ups and the citizens would all think and do whatever CCP wanted,” (Yu H., 2003). In the film’s portrayal of Feng Xia and Er Xi’s wedding, images and banners of Mao displaying his political jargon in outstanding red and white were present all over the scene, as though Chairman Mao was a godlike figure. When Er Xi exclaimed, “In good times, we think of Mao”, he showcases his absolute respect and devotion towards Mao’s ruling, it was an eye opener. This seemingly normal scene actually beholds an underlying message, where the people of the Communist China were brainwashed to attribute all goodness to Mao’s doings. Such small details construct the foundation and strengthen the false belief that life is continuously improving such that communism is ideal and problem solver. In reality, it is simply disconnecting the people from reality.
After the Great Leap forward, it becomes increasing obvious that Mao’s ideology may not be all that great. Chinese were brought to light and Mao, fearing that the revolutionary spirit may be wavered, called for a propaganda movement – the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Stambler B., 2016), so as to regain the support and enthusiasm of the masses. In the particular scene where the frail doctor (Zhao Yu Xiu) was saved from captivity in a bid to assist Feng Xia’s birth, he was so weak from the beatings and starvation by the political party and as a result, failed to save Feng Xia’s life. This iconic scene evidently tells us that the CCP is not as ‘great’ as they seemed to be and how dominating they are, as they resort to violence and extreme methods to maintain social stability whereby they do not tolerate any misgivings or suspicions.
In watching the film, the audiences recognised the detrimental effects that CCP’s political implementations have on the socio and economic level. Viewers become sceptical of the communist party, because it is common for the central government to exaggerate their results and success which in reality, did not took place. In fact, the way the film ended could easily be related to how the CCP intentionally and thoroughly set in order to provide a more presentable and politically acceptable reconstruction of this traumatic past to its audience (Doll A., 2014). These all signifies how propaganda-filled the CCP essentially is, in that era, for that matter.
To Live: CCP’s Unmet Aims
Meanwhile, this film embodies and underlies the big mistake of Mao’s ruling as despite all the consequences that China experienced from Mao and the CCP political implementations, the fact is that their aims remained unmet and the consequences certainly outweigh the benefits. By now, what the Chinese had gone through under communism is knowledge by the world, yet ‘To Live’ forthright depictions of the hardships and sacrifices from these disastrous policies rekindle the pain of those history. Essentially, the strategies of the Great Leap Forward eventually proved disastrous. Planting programmes were not suitable in all areas of China and with drought, it caused a bigger problem as crop yields dropped and quotas were not achieved (Cheng Z., 2014). Despite the hardships and sacrifices that the peasants underwent, their lives did not actually change for the better whereby urban-rural divide is still evident. A case in point would be the comparison between Fu Gui and his old buddy Chun Sheng. Fu Gui, despite being loyal to the CCP and committing so much even after the loss of his children, he remained poor and shabby. Yet, Chung Sheng, working directly for the CCP was definitely living better off and wealthier as can be seen when he offer compensation to Fu Gui’s family. Thus, this actually signifies that the CCP’s aims of reforming the old society for the better, improving the lives of peasants were unmet to a great extent.
At the end of the film, when Fu Gui’s grandson asked him what will happen after the baby chicks reach adulthood, Fu Gui amended his typical answer of geese, sheep and then finally oxen to modes of transportation such as trains and airplanes, seems to highlight an optimistic note to end the film whereby the country is heading towards modernization successfully with better transportation system. On the other hand, the way it ends could also be perceived negatively as it left audiences with a gruesome sense of helplessness with the film’s domineering bleak ambience. It seems to embody the message that “the past is the past, nothing could change history”, and perhaps, since nothing could change history, the only way to deal with it is by looking forward with optimism. As Jia Zhen points out in one scene, the only choice is to go on regardless of how bleak circumstances are. Hence, the unique way of ending this film (both positivity and negativity) with both possible interpretation.
To Live: Style & Effects
Zhang Yimou’s films are famously known for its highly distinct style. His artistic sensitivity is clearly evident from his film. We consider some of his methods and effects.
The frequent close-up of foods throughout his film is a symbolism of the down-to-earth humanity of ordinary people. This brings forth a vivid character that is relatable to its audience. Also, he separates scenes into specific points of view, as it contributes to the tension level which sustains his audiences’ interest. Despite so, he is very skilful in using eye-contact to ensure smooth continuity.
He also uses the ancient painting techniques where there are many incidents of powerful visual presence and shots that look like paintings. Apparently, he frames these images with natural lighting and a philosophical approach (Smail C., 2015).
One of the uniqueness to this film is Zhang Yimou’s way of expression. He infused his dark humour in tragic situations, such as when the frail doctor (Zhao Yu Xiu) consumed 7 buns which then expand into 49 buns after he drank water, thereby worsening his choking and inability to safe Feng Xia. This comical expression plays with the various emotions of the viewers.
In various situations of emotional intensity, Zhang Yimou uses background music effectively to convey emotional moods. In ‘To Live’, Zhao Jiping’s music employed traditional Chinese instrumentation is exquisite and the melancholy main theme was perfect for some of the most poignant moments (Sufi, 2010), for instance the ending melody of the film. It was so appropriate in stimulating the audiences’ emotions.
To Live: Aftermath
‘To Live’ was one of the few films that had such a level of honesty, which resulted in it being banned in China punishment due to its negative portrayal of certain pro-Maoist historical events. After which, Zhang Yimou’s illegal distribution had caused him to be 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 (Berardinelli J., 2016). Nevertheless, it is all worth it, as he received confirmation from all over the world, beyond China.
In this film, Zhang Yimou successfully achieved his aim of imparting knowledge about China to the world. His ability to create melodrama and profound effect was evident here. This film captures the essence of China’s political past, where it perfectly portrays the helplessness of these people during that era. It combines complex characterizations, richness of content and a quixotic world that failed to be achieved, which was certainly an eye-opener for the world, as we bear in mind not to allow such a mistake to happen again. When the film is being banned in China, it signifies the glaring fact that contemporary China remains unable to properly digest this traumatic past. That being said, Zhang Yimou’s film making journey certainly has not been plain sailing, with regard to his home country.
There are so many positive reviews for this outstanding film by professionals and you would probably feel the same way after watching this film.
“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.” – reviewed by Kevin Thomas, Times Writer
“To Live gives a far more intimate, and affecting perspective (of viewing the cultural changes on an epic scale” – James Berardinelli, Writer and film critic
“It conceals a universe” – Roger Ebert, Film critic and historian
In all, ‘To Live’ provides an excellent example for critical viewers to dwell in these political, social, and cultural complexities of China, as a contentious place.
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 ‘Greater China’ or the Greater China Region is a term used to refer to Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
 Cultural commodification is the transformation of ideas such as culture ideology into commodities.
 Fifth Generation of filmmakers mostly graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. These graduates constituted the 1st group of filmmakers to graduate since the Cultural Revolution and they soon jettisoned traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach.
 The Cultural Revolution, formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a socio-political movement that took place in the People’s Republic of China from 1966 until 1976. During the tragic period, millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property.
 ‘To Live’ won many awards; 1994 Cannes Film Festival, for the section of ‘Grand Prix’, ‘Prize of the Ecumenical Jury’, ‘Best Actor’, and in the 1995 British Academy Film Awards for the ‘Best Film not in the English Language’.
 Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CCP) from 1958 to 1961. The campaign was led by Mao Zedong and aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization.
 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the founding and ruling political party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
 The population in a commune was sub-divided. Twelve families formed a work team. Twelve work terms formed a brigade. Each sub-division was given specific work to do. Party members oversaw the work of a commune to ensure that decisions followed the correct party line.
 Long-er plays the character who gambles with Fu Gui. After chalking up a huge gambling debt, Fu Gui gave up the ownership of his house in an attempt to repay his debts to Long-er whereby Long-er took possession of Fu Gui’s house, becoming a landlord.
 Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961) was the period in the PRC characterized by widespread famine. Contributors to the famine includes drought, poor weather, and the policies of the CCP