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Huozhe (1994)
(aka To Live)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

An extraordinarily moving journey through the Chinese upheavals of the 20th Century, Huozhe finds an intimate focus within the larger picture. Kicking off in the 40s, Xu Fugui (Ge You) is a well known itinerant, amateur gambler and good-for-nothing. A typical day involves spending the night throwing dice at the club before being carried home at dawn, returning to under-valued wife Jiazhen (Gong Li). With a young daughter Fengxia (Liu Tianchi, when adult), and an unborn son, she has a difficult enough time without Fugui's absence. His elderly father isn't much help either, berating Fugui and exasperating his equally ancient wife, seemingly content with watching his fortune trickle away.

The situation is far worse than anyone suspects though because Fugui has been played for a fool by his regular betting opponent. A long time ago Fugui put his house up as collateral, but now it's been claimed by Long'er (Ni Dabong) - throwing the family onto the streets. Even worse, Jiazhen is leaving because she realises that Fugui will never give up his addiction voluntarily. Finally, his father becomes so enraged when their home is given away that he attacks Fugui, then keels over and dies in front of him. The winter is harsh and Fugui is reduced to selling pans or begging, just to care for his ailing mother in their humble abode. That this vertiginous plummet in fortune is entirely self-inflicted only makes the misery more ironic.

A year or so later Jiazhen returns, to the great joy of all concerned, with their infant son Youqing (Dong Fei). Both Fugui and Jiazhen are equally glad to be reunited, realising the deep attraction between them, even in these straitened circumstances. Tragedy is never far from their door though with Fengxia, being struck dumb (and partially deaf) by a mystery virus, in the preceeding year. To support his family Fugui borrows a collection of paper puppets (from Long'er no less) and goes on the road with good friend Chunsheng (Guo Tao). Fugui has a fine voice and, besides, it's always possible to make a living entertaining folks. However, events sweeping across the land of China conspire to split Fugui and Jiazhen once again, perhaps forever. The Red Army, like a swarm of ants, is on the march and defeating the Nationalists every step of the way. Unfortunately Fugui and Chunsheng have been drafted, depositing them on the losing side of the trenches.

Huozhe continues its epic saga through the ascent of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution and further. Fugui and Jiazhen are never lost from sight as the troubles surge around them, bringing pain and laughter in equal quantities, but their experiences plainly resonate with those of so many other Chinese families. Notable figures which impinge on their lives are Town Chief Niu (Niu Ben) and young Red Army Guard Wan Erxi (Jiang Wu), each affecting the others destiny.

Director Zhang Yimou is well known for his expressive film-making, combining a sure touch for human affairs with events on an epic scale, but Huozhe is special. In a superficial way Fugui and Jiazhen are purely struggling to exist (hence the title), while of deeper interest are the sacrifices and compromises necessary. At all times their situation is precarious (mostly through the threat of being denounced as enemies of the Revolution) but they pull through, either alone or together, by dint of their will and determination. Added complexity arises through the fact that many critical turns are taken by chance, only revealing their consequences subsequently (such as Fugui's gambling loss). The moments of realisation which follow these junctures form some of Huozhe's strongest scenes.

A script of such power demands actors of range and depth, which both Gong Li and Ge You are. Their total immersion into character is utterly convincing, bringing forth joy, laughter, understanding, humility and unbearable agony. There is also a real spark between Li and You, a sense of actual love - it's impossible to understate the excellence of their performances. Huozhe is an extremely emotional picture but it's the roles which bring tears, so devastating are the tribulations which weigh on them. For completion, the other players are fine, the sets and locations fitting and the sparse score appropriate. Huozhe indicates just what cinema is all about and why I love it so.

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