A Tale Well Told 

To Live revives movie storytelling

Storytelling is a threatened art these days, and lazy moviemakers are perhaps the biggest threat. What began as experimentation with film technique has become an overdependence on cinematic shorthand. When Eisenstein began to experiment with film editing,rder: Our minds fill in the connective blanks. The problem is, in this visually besotted age, we have become so used to filling in those blanks that moviemakers have lost the art of constructing a narrative.

In Legends of the Fall, for example, Brad Pitt says good-bye to his lover on the Wyoming prairie, and in the very next shot he's commandeering a pirate ship somewhere on the high seas. A 19th-century novelist would have spent 100 pages explaining the information crucial to that narrative development. Now we're expected to assume the screenwriter's role along with the viewer's; in the process, the very things that hold our attention in a story—character development, anecdotes and incidental asides—are abandoned.

To Live, the new movie by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, manages what these days amounts to a miraculous feat: It tells a story simply, beautifully and so completely that we're left with a sense of serene satisfaction. In the process, it restores the thematic richness and detail so lacking in most contemporary films—and so crucial to our enjoyment. To Live runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, and yet it is never less than spellbinding and visually stunning—a tribute to the filmmaker's craft as well as the storyteller's.

To Live opens in mainland China in the 1940s, in the years just before the revolt against Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalist army and the rise of Mao. The protagonist, Fugui, is an inveterate gambler and ne'er-do-well who subsists on his family's declining fortune. Against the protests of his wife, Jiazhen, who cares for his aged parents as well as his young daughter Fengxia, Fugui gambles into the hands of a conniving puppet master, a move that leaves him ultimately without shelter, family or honor. As political turmoil sends the country into upheaval, Fugui struggles to regain his family and fulfill one meager but daunting wish—"to live a quiet life."

The perils of telling a story against such a politically charged backdrop are numerous: The film could either have lapsed into strident melodrama, like the overrated , or into anti-communist agitprop lacking in human dimensions. Director Yimou, however, the most important figure to emerge thus far from the so-called "young Chinese cinema," keeps his drama rooted in the intimate details of everyday life: keeping warm, finding work, sharing meals. The movie's subtle but damning portrait of communist inefficiency and brutality unfolds through incident, not speechifying or crude grandstanding. As in his previous films, most notably Ju Dou and the magnificent Raise the Red Lantern, Yimou includes elements of melodrama but addresses them in such a skillful, matter-of-fact way that they don't seem sensational: They seem merely another hazard of the flux of living.

In a fine piece of writing, character and plotting are inextricable. Once Fugui and Jiazhen have been introduced, they seem to seize control of their destiny, and the movie's as well. The movie spans three decades of warfare, violence and personal tragedy, but Yimou never violates his characters for the sake of plot mechanics or an ideological point. Even when a surprise twist occurs—and there are too many to count—the characters react with appropriate joy, outrage or vengeance. What makes To Live such a superb piece of storytelling is the accumulation of details that build interest: the feel of busy streets, the ever-shifting relationships between family, friends and neighbors, the seemingly insignificant choices that prove vital—or deadly—later on. When someone goes to war, we have seen the events that led him there, and we know how he will respond. The careful crafting of the central characters permits effortless shifts between comedy and tragedy, between humor and horror.

Fugui is a particularly rich creation, a flawed hero who, like Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, seems all the more human and compelling for his frailties. Ge You, the actor who portrays Fugui, won the Cannes Film Festival award for best actor. In his early scenes, as a cocksure gambler, Fugui's unlined face exudes arrogant self-loathing; when he loses his entire fortune—and his family—on a single unwise bet, the arrogance drains from his face, leaving a mask of pure anguish. The cry that issues from Fugui is acting that transcends all ethnic or cultural boundaries. His devastated howl cuts right to the soul, and yet we hear in it the music that will eventually save his life. Ge You has one of those faces that expresses the kind of humility shaped by years of misfortune.

Gong Li, Yimou's frequent collaborator as well as one of the world's most accomplished and beautiful actresses, provides the movie's conscience as Jiazhen: Her painful decision to leave Fugui snaps him to life, and when he returns her reproachful looks are tempered with affection. Theirs is the most moving, honest and adult romance in current movies. Jiazhen needles Fugui to keep him humble, while he draws upon her spiritual strength; both have resentments, passions and disappointments that never go away, no matter how dimmed by time. Yet the way their faces age together, not so much by makeup but by shared experience, embodies the movie's radiant promise of hope: By the movie's end, we have seen the survival of love despite crushingly painful blows.

Although it is easily one of the best movies of recent years, To Live was locked out of an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film by stupid voting processes and outright censorship: The Chinese government refused to enter the film as its official Oscar contender, due to the movie's criticisms of the whims of Maoist doctrine. Avenge the filmmakers, then, by seeing the movie. I've seen few movies in the past year that I enjoyed as consistently as To Live. I love the mysterious depth and beauty of cinematographer Lu Yue's images, particularly the emphasis on backlit screens and hazy alleyways. I love the use of food as a metaphor of family solidarity, and the many moments of bravery, and humor, and compassion. Most of all, I love the perfect, novelistic balance of Zhang Yimou's world, in which the meal that saves one man from starvation brings about another's death, and the act that destroys Fugui's life ultimately leads to his salvation. To Live has the impact of a great novel, or a story handed down over generations. The marvelous last shot leaves us with the suggestion that life goes on, for Fugui and Jiazhen and all the movie's flawed and fabulous creations, long after the image has left the screen.

closes March 23 at the Belcourt.

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