Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Daoist Cosmic Discourse in Zhang Yimou's to Live

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Daoist Cosmic Discourse in Zhang Yimou's to Live

Article excerpt

Of all Zhang Yimou's films, To Live (1994) has enjoyed the greatest international success.(1) Notwithstanding its triumphs at film festivals, the film has not been a favorite, like some of his earlier works, with film specialists and has generated few critical studies. This lack of interest in academic circles has three apparent reasons. First, compared with his other critically acclaimed films such as Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990), and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live contains no traces of experimentation in either narrative or cinematography, thus marking a return to the tradition of melodramatic representation.(2) Second, the overseas vogue of the Fifth Generation lost its momentum after reaching its peak in the previous year when Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine won the Palme d'Or (Cannes Film Festival), Golden Palm, and Golden Globe (Best Foreign Language Film) awards, as well as two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography). To Live remains, in fact, the last film by the Fifth Generation directors to win a major international award since then. Finally, Zhang Yimou's film suffered from the bad timing of its release, following, as it did, on the heels of Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite, films which cover almost the same subject matter and historical period.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding its release and reception, however, To Live is a superbly crafted and refined cinematic text worthy of critical attention. This essay explores the dynamics between Daoist cosmic discourse and socio-political forces as manifested through the rise and fall of the characters' fortunes in the film.

The title is pregnant with meaning and serves well as a starting point. It may be translated as To Live, Living, or To Remain Alive. None of these translations alone, however, fully denotes the semantic ambiguities or cultural connotations of the original. The Chinese title consists of two characters: huo [CHINESE TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and zhe [CHINESE TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. As a verb, huo has two basic meanings: 1) to have life or to be alive, as opposed to being dead; 2) to live, in the sense of passing life in a certain manner. Zhe is a particle that, when used in combination with a verb, indicates either an action in progress or a certain state continuing to exist. In a way, its grammatical function is similar to the verbal suffix "-ing" in English. Unlike English, however, the Chinese language does not indicate tense through verbal conjugations. It relies on particles such as zhe in combination with context to relate an action or event to past, present, or future time.

The phrase huozhe, therefore, may mean to continue to live, to be living, or to stay alive. Depending on the particular context, any of these meanings can contain positive, negative, or neutral denotations. "To live" can be associated with the subjective states of joy and misery, with the material conditions of wealth and poverty, or with the ethical realm of good and evil. "Living" may suggest the cyclical business of doing one's daily chores, the anticipation of getting up every morning in order to enjoy the delight and realize the promise life has to offer, or the mechanical habit of performing the same routines each day without hope or resignation. "To remain alive" could imply the will to live, the struggle to survive, or the biological instinct of prolonging life. The film critic Roger Ebert remarks that "`To Live' is a simple title, but it conceals a universe." The title huozhe syntactically is the beginning of an unfinished statement that is to be completed by the story itself.

Spanning half a century that is plagued by an unusual number of cataclysmic political movements and social changes, To Live distinguishes itself from other Zhang Yimou's films in its treatment of the socio-historical setting. In Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern, the dates are vague and irrelevant. …

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