THE government of China has done it again. Instead of taking pride in a breathtaking achievement by one of their nation's greatest filmmakers, Chinese authorities are dragging their feet about approving the movie for viewing in its own land.
Something similar happened last year when Chinese officials voiced displeasure with ``Farewell My Concubine,'' a top prizewinner at the Cannes International Film Festival, evidently because they disliked the movie's sexual and political candor. Another such incident took place when China tried to drag ``Ju Dou'' out of the Academy Awards race in 1989, after it was nominated as a contender for best foreign-language film.
The latest example of this self-punishing behavior by China's motion-picture bureaucracy involves another film by ``Ju Dou'' director Zhang Yimou, perhaps the boldest and brightest director in Asian cinema today. His new picture, ``To Live,'' follows the experiences of a Chinese family over a period of several decades, starting shortly before Mao Zedong's communist regime took power.
It isn't clear exactly what aspects of ``To Live'' have prompted officials to withhold approval for its release in China, although a probable reason is its wryly critical account of excesses during the early years of Communist rule - when the well-being of an individual or family depended on willingness to abide by rigidly drawn political rules, and when even a loyal servant of the governing system could abruptly be labeled a ``capitalist roader'' and thrust under a dangerous ideological cloud.
Zhang a no-show at festival
Also unclear is the exact status of director Zhang now that his just-completed movie has been shown here to much enthusiastic applause. What is clear is that he didn't arrive at Cannes to preside over the screenings of his film, either because he felt it would be more politic to stay quietly at home - this appears to be the officially sanctioned explanation - or because obstacles were placed in his path as departure time approached.
In any case, the festival showed its disapproval of the situation in a muted but unmistakable manner: At the official press conference for ``To Live'' it displayed a conspicuously empty chair on the dais to call attention to the director's absence, and let it be known that a similar chair would be present at social events held to celebrate and promote the movie over the next few days.
The chair's symbolism was quite effective during the press conference, which began with moderator Pierre Rissient asking questioners to focus on artistic rather than political matters, and continued with the press freely ignoring this request.
While no definitive word on Zhang's status was forthcoming from producer Fusheng Chiu or stars Gong Li and Ge You, who were present in Cannes to represent the film, the producer spoke articulately on the problem of censorship in Chinese culture. Most pertinently, since ``To Live'' was financed with Taiwanese money, he noted that noncommunist Taiwan only recently stopped censoring movies (after 40 years of vigorously enforcing the practice) and stated his hope that mainland China will soon do the same. Only then, he continued, will cinema there be able to accomplish its basic function ``of exchanging ideas between people.''
The story of ``To Live'' begins in the 1940s, when people in much of China still lived under near-medieval conditions.
The main characters are Fugui, the dissipated son of a wealthy landowner, and Jiazhen, his increasingly exasperated wife. When compulsive gambling by Fugui leads to the loss of his family's entire fortune, Jiazhen picks up their young son and walks out of his life, but returns a few years later when she learns he has mended his ways.
Chastened by poverty and hard knocks, Fugui takes up puppeteering as a trade, becoming a traveling entertainer. Mao's army recruits him during the revolutionary period of the late '40s, and his experiences with the Red Guard become his most valuable asset in the period after the war - when hereditary wealth becomes a virtual death warrant, and Fugui finds himself ironically grateful for the youthful excesses that destroyed his fortune years earlier.
The personal and political
The rest of the movie follows him and Jiazhen as they raise their family amid challenges ranging from the personal (losing a son, finding a husband for their disabled daughter) to the political (showing a sufficient degree of party loyalty, dealing with a friend who has incurred official disapproval).
As this description indicates, ``To Live'' is a long and multifaceted tale. In this regard it resembles such other recent Chinese productions as ``Farewell My Concubine'' and ``The Blue Kite,'' and also the Taiwanese epic called ``The Puppetmaster,'' all of which reflect a present-day urge felt by Chinese filmmakers to bring the entire scope of their nation's modern history into the embrace of a single narrative that will clarify and elucidate the complex issues they and their families have faced.
It is true that Zhang criticizes such phenomena as the Cultural Revolution and the burgeoning Chinese bureaucracy more directly in ``To Live'' than in such earlier films as ``Ju Dou'' and ``The Story of Qiu Ju,'' where he indicated his social and political stances through metaphor and suggestion.
Still, it's obvious that the primary purpose of ``To Live'' is not to score ideological points, but rather to explore common problems of everyday life through the experiences of an ordinary family.
In short, this is above all a human story, and as such it's masterfully done, with superb acting and a visual style that fills the screen with incident and spectacle without ever losing sight of the struggling individuals who are its main reason for existing.
To hamper the widespread distribution of Zhang's movie would be a ridiculous error for the Chinese authorities to make. One hopes they will give it all necessary clearances with the least possible delay - instead of placing it on a shelf for more than a year, as they did with Zhang's earlier ``Raise the Red Lantern,'' and only allowing it into Chinese theaters after countless moviegoers outside Asia have loudly registered their approval. Zhang is one of their great cultural assets, and they should proudly make the most of him.