To Live (Huozhe) (1994)

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Released 20-Oct-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Theatrical Trailer-1.85:1, 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 (1:46)
Trailer-Osama, Letters To Ali, Owning Mahowny, Goodbye Lenin!
Trailer-Together, Yi Yi
DVD Credits
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1994
Running Time 132:28 (Case: 120)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (81:55) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Yimou Zhang
Studio
Distributor
Era International
Madman Entertainment
Starring You Ge
Li Gong
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $29.95 Music Jiping Zhao


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
French
Spanish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    A while back, whilst wandering through a variety of film and DVD-related web sites, I suddenly came to realise two things: one was that I seemed to be spending a deal of time checking out the cinematic output of the Asian region and in particular Korea and China and the other was a film by the name of Wo de fu qin mu qin (The Road Home) ranked rather highly on the suggestions for films that should be seen from this part of the world. Since that film happened to be available quite reasonably on DVD from overseas at the time, I decided to indulge in it along with another film from the same director in Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less). Wo de fu qin mu qin arrived shortly thereafter, was promptly stuck into the DVD player and my cinematic life was changed. It turned out to be one of the most exquisite films I have ever seen with cinematography that would have most Hollywood directors giving the game away and resorting to new careers as manure shovelers at the nearest horse stud.

    Since that time, a review of my DVD purchases indicates that the cinematic output of Asia now comprises about 30% of purchases and this is rising almost monthly. Amongst that output, the work of Zhang Yimou gets an automatic purchase simply on the strength of Wo de fu qin mu qin. I have yet to be disappointed by any of his films that I have seen. So when a previous example of his work became available for review, in the form of Xingfu Shiguang (Happy Times), I volunteered to do the review. Circumstances at that time dictated that I had to give the selection up, which made me even more determined to get this particular disc for review.

    Perhaps a lot of what we need to know about this film can be noted through one simple fact: its release saw the director and the lead actress banned from any further co-productions and a two year ban from film making. You know from this that the film gets rather too close to the bone in terms of telling it like it was during the period in China from before the Communist Revolution in the 1940's through to the at times incomprehensible Cultural revolution of the 1960's. In many ways, this is a warts and all look at a period in Chinese history that has still to prove to the world that it was a necessary path to be travelled.

    The entire film is centred around the Xu family and predominantly Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife Xu Jiazhen (Gong Li). The film starts with Xu Fugui gambling away what little money he has left of the family's apparent wealth, much to the consternation of his wife. As she gathers the courage to leave him, despite being pregnant with their second child, he manages to lose the family home in order to settle his gambling debts. Having gone from a position of wealth to a position of destitution, we now get the chance to see how life is not just hard but occasionally not just. With his wife having left him, Fugui attempts to rebuild his life by selling minor wares in the local market, before asking the man who took his house to loan him the money to set up a proper shop. All he gets from the man is a box containing shadow puppets - which proceed to become a thread throughout the film that ties together all the aspects of the family's travails over the subsequent decades. With his gambling addiction behind him, Jiazhen returns to reclaim her family and things seem to improve. More through pure luck than good judgment, Fugui ends up wandering the countryside as a puppeteer - a vocation that sees him caught up in the Communist revolution. His ability to adapt to the situations he is confronted with eventually sees him return home to find Jiazhen now working hard supplying water to the homes around their modest abode.

    The film then follows the family's up and downs as the changes introduced by the Communist regime impact upon their lives and the lives of those around them. If that was not hard enough, the family is confronted with tragedy on more than one occasion, yet through sheer determination they continue to survive the hardships thrown at them.

    This is really a story that needs to be experienced rather than explained, and any extensive explanation is going to destroy the whole point of the film. With China of the period depicted in the film being very much behind the Bamboo Curtain, this is probably the first time that many people will be given a serious insight into what life was like in China in the period. That the film does so in such a way as to get its messages across without resorting to in-your-face tactics, and equally does so in such a way as to not create major positive or negative reactions, is a testament to a very well written screenplay. But as so often is the case, a screenplay is but words upon a piece of paper - it needs quality people to take those words and turn them into a film of great power. In this case, that is achieved by the three main players here - Zhang Yimou the director and Ge You and Gong Li the actors. They are not alone of course, but they sure make a huge contribution to the film. Most would be familiar with Gong Li and she is well recognised as one of the great Asian actors. Less well known, at least to me, is Ge You but he here turns in one of the best acting displays you could wish to see. Aided by some terrific make up work, that utterly convinces you that you are watching the man age during the course of the film, Ge You produces a performance that thoroughly deserved the Best Actor award from the Cannes Film Festival in 1994.

    Sure the film is not perfect, for no film ever can be, but you would be hard pressed to find any serious fault with what the entire cast and crew managed to produce here.

    This film makes an interesting follow up to the previously reviewed Xiao cheng zhi chun (Springtime In A Small Town), simply because they share a common era as their initial setting as well as revolving around a domestic situation. The parallels thereafter are lacking as the scope of this film is much, much greater as it takes us through the Communist revolution and subsequent ideological shifts across the course of four decades. Blessed with some of the finest acting you will ever see, especially from Ge You, and with the directorial talents of perhaps the greatest Chinese director of this age, this is an at times spellbinding look at a period of history that few of us non-Chinese have any real understanding of. It is not a piece of fluff to watch and forget but rather an engrossing piece of film making that just exudes quality. Well worth the effort to investigate this one.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, very close to the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is 16x9 enhanced.

    The main issue with the transfer is readily apparent from the very opening scene - there is a softness to the transfer that initially I found quite disturbing. It certainly does no favours to the opening scene in the club (for want of a better term), but eventually one adjusts to the softness and once out of the club things are not quite so obviously soft. Without the sharpness that perhaps would have been expected here, detail just drops off just a little.

    In all other respects this is a very serviceable transfer indeed. There is some occasional light grain but nothing distracting, and shadow detail is uniformly excellent and presents no impediments to the film at all. The general impression is that the director was going for a slightly muted look to evoke the time period within which the film is set and succeeds quite admirably. Clarity is pretty good throughout, often running out to excellent in the more open scenes - much of the drama takes place in tight confines such as the family home or in a factory or in the hospital.

    Just like the previously reviewed Xiao cheng zhi chun, which was set in the same sort of initial time frame as this film, the colours are muted with earthier colours to the fore. This is very much in conformity with the Chinese sensibilities as far as colour go, and as a result there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. The only real veering away from the muted tones is the brighter colours of the Mao murals painted during the latter part of the film which provide a nice lift to the overall palette. All extremely effective stuff, with only the slightest hint of oversaturation in the red opening credits to be noted.

    There are no significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. Equally there are no obvious film-to-video artefacts in the transfer and film artefacts are confined to a few specks here and there that were barely noticed. This is a lot better than I was expecting and goes a long way to offsetting the lack of sharpness for much of the film.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming at 81:55. Since I did not notice it during the playback of the film, it is obviously not a disruption to proceedings.

    There are three subtitle options on the disc, being selectable English, French and Spanish efforts. Since my knowledge of Mandarin is excessively restricted, I obviously cannot attest to their accuracy. They do, however, seem to convey the feeling of the dialogue quite well, and are rather easy to read being in a largish font, yellow in colour. The only minor downer is that there are obvious American spellings included in the subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, a Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack that may be surround encoded (sorry, but I cannot be definitive on this point).

    The dialogue comes up well in the transfer, so it is easy to understand (well, at least if you understand Mandarin). Audio sync does not appear to be an issue in the transfer.

    The original score comes from Zhao Jiping and it really is an extremely effective effort. Not overt to any great extent, but strongly supportive of the film. It is another of those occasions where an isolated music score would perhaps have been a nice indulgence.

    When the soundtrack needs some presence, such as during the rather impressive appearance of the Communist army, it has plenty of it - enough to suggest that a six channel soundtrack might have been somewhat over the top. As it is, the two channel soundtrack certainly seems to convey the mood of the film in a very intimate way most of the time, no doubt exactly as the director intended. There is nothing wrong with the soundtrack at all, although perhaps on the odd occasion a bit more brightness to the sound might have been nice.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Given the impact that the film had at Cannes in 1994, and the subsequent impact the film had on Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, it is a little disappointing that there is nothing substantive in the way of an extras package. This is one film where I really would have loved to see a featurette. Maybe the future will see a special edition be issued... At least we are not subjected to something worse than Region 1 in this regard.

Menu

    Nicely done with some modest audio enhancement.

Theatrical Trailer (1:46)

    A decent enough effort of good quality, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is 16x9 enhanced and comes with decent Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Given that it has the Samuel L. Goldwyn logo at the start, it is presumed to be the American trailer.

Trailers (6)

    The obligatory Madman Propaganda, with the trailers being for Osama (1:49), Letters To Ali (1:52), Owning Mahowny (1:59), Goodbye Lenin! (2:04), Together (1:54) and Yi Yi (1:50). Most we have seen before so there is nothing really remarkable about them. All are presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, they are all not 16x9 enhanced and feature good Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

DVD Credits

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 release comes courtesy of MGM as part of its World Films collection. The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer. It features the same language and subtitle options as the Region 4 release. Interestingly the playing time of the Region 1 release is almost identical to this Region 4 release. Does that mean the Region 4 release is taken from an NTSC master or does it feature some extra footage? It would be interesting to get an answer on this point, as I cannot find any reference anywhere to additional footage.

    There is a Region 2 release from France courtesy of TF1 Video, which runs 127 minutes (which would be right for a 4% speedup on the NTSC runtime of 132 minutes). It features additional extras in the form of an interview with Gong Li recorded at Cannes in 1994, as well as filmographies for Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. The theatrical trailer on the disc runs to 2:40, making it almost a minute longer than that on this Region 4 release, and there is also an additional French dubbed soundtrack. This all sounds like a favourable recommendation in favour of this release - until you find out that the only available subtitles are French and they are non-removable. Egads, that means this Region 2 French release is not really recommendable to any other than French speakers who need non-removable subtitles. The video transfer is apparently not the best anyway, with compression artefacts amongst other issues noted.

    There is a Region 3 release from Taiwan courtesy of ERA Home Video (actually it is a Region 0 release) that has no extras other than filmographies and features just a Mandarin soundtrack with removable Traditional Chinese and English subtitles. Unfortunately the video transfer is not 16x9 enhanced and is in an aspect ratio of 1.69:1 thanks to some vertical squeezing. The video runs to 126 minutes (in NTSC format), suggesting that it has lost some footage along the way too. It also features some colour brightness boosting (that probably goes against the muted palette intended by the director) along with digital manipulation. It is also presented on a DVD-5 disc as opposed to the DVD-9 formatting of the three alternative versions. On all counts, this release can be wholeheartedly ignored.

    All things considered, the Region 4 release seems to be the way to go - even though it may be taken from an NTSC master.

Summary

    If you are looking for mindless entertainment, then you are certainly not going to be wanting to throw this DVD into your player. However like Xiao cheng zhi chun reviewed previously, it certainly is the sort of film that handsomely rewards the time you invest in watching it. Given that Zhang Yimou and Gong Li copped two years of exile from the film industry as a result of the film, you can be pretty well assured that what is seen is rather too close to the bone in terms of accuracy. Typical for a Zhang Yimou film, the cinematography is excellent and the acting is superb. Perhaps the film could have been a little tighter at times, but that would be rather atypical of the director's work, and it certainly demands a deal of attention at times that you may not be able, or willing, to indulge the film. In the final analysis though, it is an excellent film and quite deserving of the accolades that have been thrown at it.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Aconda 9381ZW. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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