Story: A man loses everything to his gambling addiction and becomes a puppeteer… during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Why You Should See It: When a director has a great string of movies, its usually the result of a great collaboration with his muse, and in cinema, that’s 99% of the time, the star. Somehow, the flesh and blood, face, body, voice channels said director’s point of view, philosophy, sense of humor and basically… all fibers. Somehow actor and director are in synch in every way. Becoming each other’s instruments of expression. Unlike many films today, you just can’t imagine extracting one from the process.
Well known examples include Scorsese / De Niro (imagine Raging Bull or Taxi Driver without either) and Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart (imagine It’s A Wonderful Life without either). Lesser known ones include John Hughes/John Candy (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck), Lina Wertmuller/Giancarlo Giannini (Seduction of Mimi, Swept Away, Seven Beauties) and Zhang Yimou/Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, the Story of Qui Ju). Zimou and Li were married like Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann are today and the couple brought the best out of each other.
Their marriage eventually ended, and although Zimou continued to make interesting films, he never quite harnessed the same greatness again without Gong Li. They were so good that you expected a masterpiece from them every couple years. “To Live” is not their best film, which is incredible, because it’s a such a damn good movie.
This truly epic picture (we’re talking thousands of extras) is not only worthy of David Lean or Sergio Leone, but it’s also full of feeling and agony like a De Sica movie. The real epic is what this director and actor extracted from each other, managing laughters, tears and just… awe from the audience. “To Live” would be their last truly good movie before all the juice was squeezed out of them. They would make one more film (the uneven “Shanghai Triad”) before they divorced only to reunite sporadically with a couple efforts (“Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Coming Home”), much like Simon & Garfunkel would sometimes reunite for a concert, making “To Live” Yimou & Li’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” I Can’t Believe It’s On YouTube.
Written by: Norith Soth