The New York Optimist
October 2008
Essential Life
by Tola Brennan




It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen this. So, for the writing of this article, I had to do a little logistical work. I found
a shitty New York Times review which I couldn’t stand actually reading, so my being judgmental isn’t entirely fair. On
IMDB, some member who shared my reaction wrote a little paragraph. I’m sure there’s other press, but that’s totally
irrelevant. The point is, this film went under the radar because absolutely nothing exciting happens in it. And no, it won’t
give you a good time. But for me, it was the most overwhelmingly stirring film experience I think I’ve ever had.
I wasn’t entirely honest in the last paragraph,
To Live received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 (it’s
release date). So it’s not entirely obscure. Anyway, before Zhang Yimou became conventionally popular with his martial
arts flick trilogy (Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower) he mainly directed films involving
tragedy. To Live is among them. It stars Ge You and Gong Li (a long time collaborator of Yimou’s). The story was
originally a novel of the same name written by Yu Hua in 1992. The film was banned in China, which inadvertently won
the author world acclaim. To Live was also the first Chinese film to have its foreign distribution rights pre-sold.
The film covers thirty years of Chinese history. It begins with a gambler called Xu Fugui in the 1940s and spans The
Chinese Civil War, subsequently The Great Leap Forward and concludes with The Cultural Revolution. The work has a
number of qualities which stood out to me that I appreciated immensely. Firstly, it has no plot in the conventional sense.
I’ve been yearning for a film without a formulaic climactical plot arc, and this is precisely that. There are no heroes, and
there are no main characters in the conventional sense. You’re simply presented with a few people who remain under
the magnifying glass. Events just happen. There is no contrivance or drama. The film flows with an uncanny similarity
to a very wide river.
Throughout the film, you witness suffering of all kinds, yet, somehow, every event has an equal significance.
Everything in it should seem existential and meaningless. Objectively, judging by the actual content of the movie, it
should be boring. It should illicit a mild twinge of empathy and be forgotten about. But, instead it does completely the
opposite. Through its unassuming nature, it becomes so pristinely rich that you open yourself to the film and
comprehend its breathtaking honestly. It’s this refreshingly foreign and incredibly vivid portrait of the human condition,
and beyond that, human conditions. That is to say, it holds the best of both worlds. It’s both substantive and
substantial.  Now I’m the kind of person who cries about twice a year. And without a doubt, this film made me cry
twice.
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