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Scene of the Week: Fugui Loses Everything at the Gambling Parlor (To Live, Zhang Yimou)



“If the baby is a boy, I won’t let him be like you.”

Even for viewers unfamiliar with Zhang Yimou’s oeuvre, there’s a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about one of the opening scenes of his 1994 masterpiece, “”. Clearly, the protagonist Fugui () is made to be unlikeable — or perhaps an unlikely hero, there’s a creeping thought — as he ignorantly loses all his money to his greedy opponent while his wife pleads for him to return home. The sequence of events gives such a rich portrait of who Fugui is at this stage in his life and also sets the stage for a number of other events throughout the film. The scene’s dramatic arc delivers punch after punch as the viewer watches Fugui slowly lose everything to his opponent — and to his ego.

The bald young Fugui, already a gambling addict, goes to the parlor once again to play. With a confident stance and slight smirk, he faces his opponent Long’er () in craps, who knows that Fugui can’t bear to lose. After one win, his ego inflates grossly — but then his wife Jiazhen () walks in, pleading for him to stop gambling. He loses his temper at her appearance, demanding that she “get out of [his] sight” as parlor guests laugh at his childish outburst. With his wife’s disappointed look and the other reactions, Zhang crafts the perfect introduction for his protagonist through not merely his behavior, but also the reaction of other characters. 

As he loses more and more frequently, dancing of the shadow puppets (piyingxi) in the background grows more frantic, building tension toward the inevitable ending: Fugui having gambled away everything, all the way through his entire familial home. Watching a man count on the abacus, and as Long’er declares his glee at having won Fugui’s father’s mansion, the impact of his actions finally dawns on him. Stumbling out of the gambling parlor at a loss for words, he finds his wife leaving, taking their child with her in a rickshaw. Her parting words? “If the baby is a boy, I won’t let him be like you.” The dark silhouette of the rickshaw is the straw in the camel’s back, and he bursts into tears.

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