Lifetimes (1994)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-07-31
Summary: A must see movie
“Lifetimes” is a wonderful movie that illustrates the cataclysmic events in China from 1949 to 1975 from the point of view of one family. It has a perfectly balanced five act structure with the first and last acts involving personal loss and triumph serving as bookends to the middle three which portray the sweep of war, revolution and party domination. The central characters are Fook Gwai and Ga Jan a husband and wife who, after their marriage is shattered on the rock of his gambling come back together. They love, support and depend upon each other without reservation, staying together in the face of almost insuperable tragedy and despair and are the only characters who appear in each of the five acts.

The first act centers on Fook Gwai, his addiction to gambling and involves loss of property and of face. He can’t stop playing dice at the local gambling hall and, like all compulsive gamblers, can’t stop losing. His life is chaotic—his father hates him, his wife is wretched and he has to be literally carried home every night, drunk and unable to walk. He finally loses his ancestral home, a beautiful palace like place that shelters his parents and his wife and children. Not knowing how bad his losses are but realizing that Fook Gwai will not stop gambling the pregnant Ga Jin leaves with their daughter. He is almost undone by the twin hammer blows of impoverishment and repudiation by his family—not only does his wife leave but his father dies on the day the property is made over to Long’er, his wily opponent across the table. Fook Gwai manages to pull himself out of the depths enough to scrape a meager living by selling needles and thread on the street while selling his mother’s jewelry to afford a place for them to live. Ga Jin returns with their daughter and newly born son. Fook Gwai borrows the shadow puppet show that Long’er no longer needs and goes on the road to support his family. This act has a lot of exposition—almost all of the main characters, the underlying theme and the central images of the movie are introduced—but is so packed with pathos and action that it never drags.

The shadow puppet show is an image that ties every bit of the movie together. In the first act Fook Gwai shows that he can sing and play the accompaniment to the show on stage and is given the trunk full of puppets by his former adversary. He and his good friend Chunsheng are giving a show in a rural area when, in an unforgettable moment (in a movie full of striking images) a bayonet slices through the fabric upon which the shadows from the puppets are cast. This begins the second act with Fook Gwai and Chunsheng conscripted into the Kuomintang Army as laborers, pulling cannons over muddy roads. Their existence hangs by a thread—they are much less valuable than the pack horses they replaced and anyone who is hurt or ill is simply left beside the road to die. They encounter a tough non-com who is in the army only to find his brother. This new friend is invaluable, showing them the tricks to staying alive under such horrible inhuman conditions. They keep from freezing by taking the coats and hats of the wounded who froze to death, find a dead officer’s canteen full of whiskey and generally keep an eye on each other. There are real limits to how the three of them can do for each other, though—they wake one morning left behind in a deserted camp with only a wasteland of dead men to keep them company. The camera pans across a frozen desert covered with bodies—it doesn’t linger but makes the point of the devastation of war and the chance occurrences that allow some to live while others do not. This image is followed by another just as striking, as the forward scouts of the People’s Liberation Army sweep across the plain, growing in number with each passing second. Fook Gwai and Chunsheng surrender (having been shown the proper way to do so) and change sides. Now part of the baggage train of the PLA, they are allowed to put on shows for the tired soldiers, in one scene—improbable but still very moving—playing to an audience of thousands.

The next two acts cover postwar and post-revolution China. Fook Gwai unites with his family—Chunsheng has stayed with the army as a driver—and try resume their lives. But things will never be the same again. This is shown almost immediately when Long’er, who took Fook Gwai’s home, is executed for being one of the landlord class—essentially for being rich. He is dragged through the streets to the execution ground and shot—“five bullets” according to Fook Gwai who shakily tells his wife of what happened. Once again the movie the randomness of life beyond the unconditional love of the family, making the point that if Long’er hadn’t taken the house, Fook Gwai would have been the one with five bullets fired into him and not a hero of the revolution with a certificate to prove it. This certificate, the only tangible thing remaining from Fook Gwai’s forced service with two opposing armies, is framed and hung on the wall It is an important plot point and image.

This is the period of the Great Leap Forward, the poorly planned and disastrous Five Year Plan of collectivization of the countryside and an attempt to proletarianize the vast Chinese peasantry. The central image and the cause for horrible tragedy is the creation of backyard smelters throughout the countryside to turn scrap iron into steel so that China would not have to import it. What happened was that useful household implements collected from every household were melted into useless lumps of pig iron, just one example of how economic progress was reversed during this time. The town was preparing for a big event—the visit of the District Chief to inspect their smelters. Everyone was mobilized to turn out, even children who were gotten up from their beds to show the steel furnaces at the school. Their son, Xu Youqing—conceived before they lost their house, born while Ga Jin was living apart and now the most important person in the world to both parents—is killed in a freak accident involving the District Chief—Chunsheng, having advanced from PLA driver. The parents are devastated, Chunsheng is prostrate with grief, the boy’s sister, Xu Feng Xia is heartbroken. Even though younger, he has come to her defense when the local boys harass her—she is mute and partially deaf—and is her closest friend as well as her brother.

The scenes in which the parents see Xu Youqing’s body are heartrending. This is the high point of the movie and both Gong Li and Ge You show grief, anger, disbelief and desolation. While it is great cinema, beautifully directed and acted it is almost painful to watch. The family was happy and loving one minute then torn apart with despair the next. Ge You won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance and both he and Gong Li ratcheted up the intensity seamlessly. It was impossible, at least for this viewer, not to be terribly moved by these scenes. To heighten the drama, Xu Feng Xia and Gin Ja are watching a performance of the shadow puppet show given by Fook Gwai when word comes of Xu Youquing’s death.

The fourth act takes place during the Cultural Revolution and is weakest part of the movie—which is by no means a condemnation but more an indication the power of the rest of the film. The central action is the marriage, pregnancy and death during childbirth of Xu Feng Xia. The shorthand here is obvious—Red Guards are bad, party hacks are bad, common people are good but helpless in the face of the new social conditions. The shadow puppet show makes its last appearance when they are forced to burn the delicate figures because they represent the old regime. The local chief, played more as a benevolent uncle than a Communist Party functionary, sets up the meeting between Xu Feng Xia and Wan Er Xi, a hulking but good hearted and charismatic Red Guard leader from a neighboring town. Wan Er Xi turns out to be the son-in-law from heaven. He is completely respectful of his new in-laws, shows up to fix their roof and paint Mao murals on the walls, loves his wife without reservation and probably helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. He is accompanied by his Red Guard cohorts who seem more like the group down at the malt shop than menacing political thugs.

The other side of the Red Guards is shown at the hospital where Xu Feng Xia is taken when she goes into labor—a group of self important students who have ousted their professors and are in charge. Ideological purity is more important than medical knowledge. All the students are women—one imagines that someone as careful as Zhang Yimou would not have this happen accidentally but I have no idea what (if any) statement he is making regarding the role of women during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Xu Feng Xia goes into labor and delivers a healthy boy. Wan Er Xi is congratulated by his fellows and the new grandparents are overjoyed until Xu Feng Xia begins bleeding badly. The Red Guard women are completely incompetent and she dies, cradled in her mother’s arms. There was too great a sense of inevitability in this act and the complete lack of professionalism shown by the hospital workers stretched belief a bit too far—a group of intelligent people working on a maternity ward would not panic when confronted with a sudden hemorrhage from a mother who had just delivered her first child. It would have been the kind of emergency that, even if they were unable to successfully deal with, would not have caused the alarm and terror that this one did. While this may seem to be a quibble, it was jarring because the rest of the movie was so realistic and true to itself and its characters. This act had too much of a tacked on feeling.

The last act wraps things up quite well and even gives a hint of a decent future to come. The Cultural Revolution has passed and the family now consists of Ga Jan, Fook Gwai and their grandson with Wan Er Xi in slavish attendance. They visit the twin gravesites of Xu Feng Xia and Xu Youqing where the grandson shows he is remarkable well adjusted to the loss of his mother. He has been given a box of fluffy baby chicks to keep—both he and the chicks will mature after the movie ends and Ga Jan punctuates this by telling him that he will be shocked at how fast they grow. The ironbound trunk that carried the shadow puppets makes its last appearance in the last scene (almost the last shot). Fook Gwai pulls it from beneath Ga Jan’s sickbed as the new home for the chicks.

The actors were uniformly excellent. Ge You has a hypnotizing presence on screen. He is able to freight the smallest movement with feeling. Both he and Gong Li kept their acting reined in until the death of Xu Youqing so that their agony then was all the more striking. Ben Nui hit just the right tone as the town party chief, even when he was packing to be sent to a cadre school for reeducation. Tao Guo had a lot of great scenes as Chunsheng, going from buddy to enemy to forgiven old friend. The various child and teen actors were enthralling and Geng Miu did his best with an impossible role as Wan Er Xi.

Recommended most highly
Reviewer Score: 10