What makes “To Live” so artfully devastating and soul-crushing is that the past is constantly dying. The narrative makes you fall in love with characters before ruthlessly bring “death” to them. This is in direct parallel to the reality of the cultural revolution, at its centre, the revolution aims to change and “kill” the past. The theme of the death of the past fits perfectly as it examines how the revolution affected the people and its scary, calamitous impacts.
The first major revolution moment of the film is when long’er gets executed. This scene is shocking. A character that was portrayed as high and mighty, someone who climbed to the top of the hierarchy is suddenly crushed under the new revolutionary force. The former wealthy of the society is gone, dead. Fugui feels this as well. He is flabbergasted when he sees long’er in the square. He pisses himself when five bullets are shot. The depiction of the scene shows the world-changing effect of the revolution, while long’er’s death demonstrates the potent communist strength.
If Long’er showed the death of societies upperclass, the burning of pupperts showed the death of culture. The audience has been seeing puppet shows since the beginning of the movie. Fugui’s singing moves along the plot while evoking the audience’s affection for this side of Chinese culture. However, they “must be burnt”. Even after they argued with the town head, “old” bits of culture like the puppets face no alternative besides being burnt. The definitiveness of this act of its destruction makes the audience mourn for the puppets. It’s something beautiful that the movie rips from the audience’ hands. This shows the revolution’s powerful grip on the people’s belongings and how pieces of the past are carefully wiped away.
The audience, as well as fugui begins doubting the revolution as seemingly everything faces “death”. Even the town leader, a character present throughout the entire film, is labeled as capitalist and most likely killed. The movie doesn’t dwell on this fact. It brings up the leader’s downfall and moves the plot swiftly along. This shows how no character can have a happy ending, even ones that aren’t important are brought down.
Every character in this film gets something positive in their lives: Long’er gets a house, Fugui gets a family, Chunsheng gets to drive, Fengxia gets married… However, everyone faces a bad ending. This happens because the revolution destroys the “past”. As the “past” dies, Long’er get’s executed, Fugui loses everybody, Chunsheng gets labeled as capitalist, fengxia dies when nobody could save her…