The theatrical release of To Live follows the same general plot as Yu Hua’s novel of the same name. It portrays the lives of Xu Fugui and his family over the course of four decades of modern Chinese history, and explores issues of filial piety, personal growth, and the intersection of politics and personal life. Like the novel, the film criticizes both traditional Chinese culture and the vagaries of the Communist regime, however, it departs from the plot and themes of Yu Hua’s original work in several important ways, including character development, setting, criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, and its depiction of life in China during the middle parts of the twentieth century.
One of the major themes of the novel is Xu Fugui’s dramatic change from an irredeemable wastrel who gambles away his family’s fortune, consorts with prostitutes, and goes out of his way to shame his wife and her family. He becomes a devoted father and dedicated husband, desperately trying to eke out an existence as a client-farmer on his family’s former lands. The film depicts Fugui as a compulsive gambler who loses his family’s wealth to his addiction. By selling his remaining goods to survive and avoiding gambling parlors, he regains his wife’s affection, and becomes the head of a traveling puppeteer. During his travel’s Fugui is shanghaied by the Nationalists to serve as a laborer in their army.
During the war, the Red Army captures Fugui, and releases him after the end of the revolution. This contrasts with the novel, in which the Red Army allows captured Nationalists to join them, or to return home, at which point Fugui heads home. Fugui’s arrival at home shows his wife, Jiazhen, delivering water as her sole means of support. The urban setting is an important change from Yu Hua’s novel, which illustrates the realities China’s peasantry faced after the Communist Revolution. Fugui joins the new family business of transporting water to support the family, packing away his puppets.
Fugui returns home just as Long Er, the gambler who tricked him out of his family’s home, is executed. While the novel indicates Long Er’s fate is due to his status as a landlord, Zhang Yimou alters the reason for his execution to show that Long Er committed crimes beyond owning a large home and land: he is accused of beating a CCP cadre member and burning the house, making him not only a landlord, but a counter-revolutionary saboteur. This appears to soften the nature of the CCP, which no longer punishes people simply because they owned property, but punishes them for actions against society.
Fugui’s reaction to Long Er’s execution shows the fear people felt when confronted with potential accusations of suspect behavior and connections. Fugui is desperate to show that he is loyal and safe, first rushing to show Mr. Niu the head of the town cadre that he took part in the revolution, but that he had nothing to do with the house. After the execution, he and Jiazhen, scramble to save his discharge certificate from the PLA to show his service, and to portray himself as just an ordinary worker.
For Fugui, the most significant difference between the movie and the novel is that Fugui does not end up alone. The film closes with Fugui, Jiazhen, Wan Erxi, and Kugen sitting at the table together for a happy family meal. This delivers a dramatically different message than the novel, which implies that it is enough to live, even through a life filled with tragedy. The film’s message seems to be not only that life will continue despite tragedy, but that it will be happy and fulfilling.
This merely scratches the surface of differences between the novel and film. In the novel Fugui’s mute daughter Fengxia marries Wan Erxi, a disabled, but dedicated porter. The film makes Erxi a lame factory worker, who is also the leader of the factory’s Red Guards. Erxi brings the other Red Guards to the Xu home to replace the roof tiles, and paint Mao portraits as decorations, and then provides a large and colorful wedding. The event is shrouded in Cultural Revolution symbolism – Fengxia wears a Red Army cap and uniform jacket, Erxi wears his finest Red Guard regalia, and Maoist portraits and slogans abound.
Fengxia’s pregnancy provides a key opportunity to criticize the Cultural Revolution and the CCP. When Fengxia goes to the hospital to deliver Kugen, all of the doctors are gone. The young and idealistic medical students at the hospital tell Erxi and Fugui that the trained physicians are reactionaries, and that they overthrew them. Worried, Erxi finds a half-dead physician who has not eaten in several days while being tormented by his captors. The doctor ends up being no help when Fengxia hemorrhages because he overeats, and becomes ill. The students panic, and she dies.
Additional criticism of the Cultural Revolution appears in the persecution of Mr. Niu, the town leader and of Chunsheng, the local party magistrate. Niu takes the role of the affable local Communist leader, welcoming all contributors to the revolution, telling Fugui that even hauling loads and entertaining the troops was a blow for the cause. Despite Fugui’s background as a landowner, Niu offers to get Fugui a better job, and acts as matchmaker for Fengxia and Erxi. When collecting metal for smelting during the Great Leap Forward, Niu allows Fugui to keep his puppets and ensures that Jiazhen still has the equipment necessary to boil and deliver water to homes. When the Cultural Revolution arrives, Niu sympathetically tells Fugui that he must burn the puppets, which represent China’s feudal past. In effect, Niu is the Compassionate Communist, who believes in the system and strives for the common good. He is convinced that when he is accused of being a capitalist that things will work out in the end. Indeed, he is more concerned that Fugui and Jiazhen get to the hospital for Kugen’s tragic birth.
Similarly, Chunsheng, Fugui’s companion in the puppeteer troop, Nationalist, and Red Armies is the local Communist leader strangely accused of being a capitalist during the Cultural Revolution. He is distressed to have accidentally killed Fugui’s son Youqing by backing into a wall with his car, and constantly tries to compensate his old friend. Since Jiazhen refuses all gifts of money and support, he resorts to giving them an expensive portrait of Mao, which they cannot decline without appearing to be counter-revolutionaries. When he is denounced, he tries to give Fugui and Jiazhen money in an account that he has saved for them, and disappears from sight.
Niu and Chunsheng show the Cultural Revolution in a conflicting light – no Red Guards haul them off to their fates. While perplexed at the course of events, both go calmly to meet their doom. Despite the criticism of Niu and Chunsheng’s demise, and the tragedy of Fengxia’s preventable death, the criticism of Cultural Revolution seems muted, as if it was the result of ineptitude or over-enthusiasm, not cynical decisions.
Other aspects of Communist rule that are held up for criticism in the novel don’t appear in the film. Youqing is killed in an meaningless car accident, rather than being deliberately drained of his blood to save Chunsheng’s wife’s life. No mention of the great famine of the Great Leap forward is made, nor of the problems caused by the seizure of metal objects for smelting into steel. The smelting campaign is shown as an idealistic crusade to liberate Taiwan from the Nationalists, and the canteens as a place of communal eating and laughter. The affect of changing Fugui’s role from peasant farmer to urban laborer also allows the film to ignore the hardships of country life, and skirts the issue of work points that Fugui worries about in the novel. This changes the nature of the Chinese experience under communism from one of deprivation and random persecution to one of hard, but honest work, sometimes accompanied by the normal tragedies of existence. Fugui and Jiazhen’s quality of life seems to improve throughout, despite the loss of their children. At the end of the film, Fugui, Jiazhen, Erxi, and Kugen are sitting down for a happy family dinner, a stark contrast to the novel’s depiction of Fugui and the ox laboring away on their own in the twilight of life. The film is dramatic and touching, but not nearly as melancholy or tragic as Yu Hua’s original work.