In light of my recent case study on the anthropological benefits of watching Yimou Zhang movies, I will now review the four Yimou Zhang films that appear in my list of the 555 greatest movies. In order to maintain consistency and help this blog make sense, I will try to remain focused on the anthropological elements that were discussed in the chapter that introduced this section. However, I will also dabble a little in the usual banalities: we will examine what makes these movies so great as movies, independent of whatever cultural elements they might introduce to us. With that being said, it is important to retain in our minds the entire argument that I put forward in the case study: a movie is great when it causes us to connect with the mind of its maker. When the movie’s auteur is precise with his decisions, and takes care of his story, its images and characters, then a movie is great. I submit that not only do Zhang’s movies give us good culture, they film the culture in such a way that we can connect with it, and, by extension, with him.
The first movie that I plan on reviewing is most likely the film that made him most famous. In 1991, Zhang released his first and greatest masterpiece, the haunting and gorgeous Raise the Red Lantern, which we will read about at a later time. This movie helped him catch the eye of movie-goers worldwide. But, as it is in all things, true greatness lies in the ability to make greatness happen twice. So, in 1994, with the production of To Live, Zhang was cemented as an international star-director. Beyond that, his main heroine in both stories, played by the great Gong Li, also found her place in the worldwide realm of movie stars.
The difference between Raise the Red Lantern and To Live is not all that great in terms of Zhang’s stylistic decisions. I will cover more of his photographic style in my review of Raise the Red Lantern. The real, noticeable difference between these two films lies more in their story. Where Raise the Red Lantern is more focused in a box, on one person’s relationship to two or three other people, To Live is more of an epic motion picture, spanning one of the most tumultuous parts of modern world history.
Anthropology depends on history. Without history, we would have little foundation to describe the patterns of humanity. What makes us human is based on where we come from. If, in past generations, humans followed a different order of existence than we do now, we could have no certifiable anthropological certainty. Yet, that is not the case. Because of history’s ability to document change over time (and, by association, stagnation over time in human behavior) certain conclusions can be made in regards to true human behavior; that is, after all, exactly what a true anthropologist seeks in his or her examination of people: an answer to the question “what makes us human?”
In To Live, we, the viewers, are exposed to one family’s travails through the political and economic turmoil that was the revolution and the Communist revivals in China, including the tumultuous time of Mao Zedong’s Communist establishment. Between these periods, many things changed, but the things that remained constant are the ones most important to anthropologists, because they demonstrate the inherent elements of humanity, not the learned ones. These inherent human characteristics are those which overcome and transcend the wiles of time and space. Race, generation, ethnicity, family, and wealth do not cancel out these constants. Some of the obvious ones are family, love, relationships, and fear. If this is what is important to anthropologists, then this is important to any humanist. Zhang is, undeniably, a humanist director.
Historically, the values of this film are staggering. We follow this family as everything around them changes, even the most important elements of their culture. Recall in my essay on Yimou Zhang that the Chinese gift-giving practice of guanxi was a significant element to the social construct. In regards to guanxi, we see a paradox put forward in this film. Communism—as stated quite efficiently in the movie—stands in complete opposition to the reciprocity that is the functioning element of guanxi, considering that communism is all about giving everything for the community, expecting nothing in return. But guanxi is all about networking through service, prevailing upon others through favors and connections that are rooted in the simplest relationships: one-on-one. These interpersonal relationships are building blocks of the entire guanxi system, but that stands in opposition to communism. We see in the film how the family copes with interpersonal relationships (such as those with the city head, with fellow soldiers, or with fellow workers) and how those relationships—rooted in guanxi—come to be effected by the obviously non-Sinocentric communist theory.
The second, and more prevalent, anthropological idea of the film is that of lian and mianxi, or “face,” which is demonstrated quite thoroughly in the first part of the film, when the father is dealing with a serious gambling addiction that destroys his entire family, at least temporarily. This causes him to lose the face that is obtained through adherence to the social norms that are associated with a given social role in the role-relationship dynamic. In an attempt to stop him from losing face, his wife, in one scene, towards the beginning of the film, bursts in on an all-male dice game to stop him from continuing down this path. What is originally an attempt to go above and beyond the duties of her role in the role-relationship dynamic turns out to be too obtuse a move, and the family suffers socially from her boldness.
However, as in most all things artistic, there is an element of social commentary here that can’t be ignored. After being called out by his wife in public—before other males—the father in this family actually decides to turn his life around. The value of the social dynamic of the family over the social network outside the home is shown in this exchange. And, this becomes the central, guiding element of the story for the rest of the movie. In this tight-knit family of a man, his wife, their daughter, and their son, we see a constant barrage of social pressures from outside the walls of their home to destroy them. And, at times, it seems like they have been destroyed. But, as Zhang does so very well through his story-telling and photography, we are shown that their essences live on.
This is probably the very saddest of Zhang’s movies, many of which are more sad than happy. Even his happiest movies, like The Road Home, have scenes of intense sadness. Watching the death and change that surrounds this poor family is a difficult venture for any viewer, whether that viewer be a casual movie-goer or a competent film connoisseur. Despite the sadness and the death, though, this movie really does live up to its title. In order “to live”, it seems, we have to live (and die) in such a way that our essence never goes away. It somehow survives, in those things, places, and people we have touched. Now, is there anything more magical than that?