To Live: Szechuan Hot Chili Oil on Noodles Recipe

Year Released: 1994
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Ge You, Gong Li, Niu Ben, Guo Tao, Jiang Wu, Liu Tianchi
(Not Rated, 145 min.)

"Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions." Samuel Johnson

No wonder it was banned in China and its director and star were placed under gag orders. To Live depicts all too well the brutal upheavals of the communist revolution in this poignant saga of one family trying to survive its embrace.

Just as all of America suffered the Depression and the Dust Bowl along with the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath, we experience the turbulence of Maoist China through its effects on one family. To Live not only deserves the Grand Jury prize it received at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, but a place in the classic epic films of all time.

We first meet wealthy Master Fungui Xu as he he gambles away the family mansion with decadent insouciance. Wearing a casual smile, he puts a red thumbprint on the delicate calligraphy that documents his debt. 

In his semi-enebriated state, he consoles himself over another loss by jumping behind the puppeteer’s screen to put some bawdy life into the show. Little does he know how prophetic this evening will be?

The black beads of the abacus click away to inform Fungui that “he doesn’t have a roof tile to his name,” but at least he doesn’t have to face his pregnant wife and daughter, as she has left him this portentous night. As the debtors come to formalize the transference of the estate, his elderly father first stoically accepts the disaster, but then lashes out at his son. “Turtle spawn. I’ll never forgive you,” he spews at Fungui, dying with the ancestral curse on his lips. And you thought you were having a bad day!

The once arrogant playboy, now reduced to selling needles and thread in the frozen street, is here, ironically, reborn. His wife Jiazhen returns with daughter and baby son, which motivates Fungui to request a loan from the landlord of his old home in order to set up a shop. Refusing the loan, the new householder instead gives Fungui the box of puppets. “Earn your own money,” he advises.

And so begins Fungui’s life with his traveling puppet troupe, He seems to have found his calling, and for a while it appears that Jiazhen’s longing for "a quiet life" may finally come true.

But the sword that slashes through their puppet canvas ends all such illusions as Fungui and his puppeteer friend Chunsheng are swept up in the Communist Revolution. The chaos of the next several decades sweep over him like a tidal wave as Fungui swims with the currents, managing to gulp life-giving air when he can.

He and Chunsheng are forced recruits for the White Army of Chiang Kai Chek, keeping warm in foxholes with coats taken from frozen corpses. With relief they welcome their life as POW’s of Mao’s Red Army, where Fungui entertains with his puppets and Chunseng realizes a lifelong ambition to drive a truck. 

Mao is triumphant and Fungui returns to his village, now under the hearty comradeship of appointed town manager Mr. Liu. Just to be safe, Fungui retrieves from the wash a soggy certificate for service in the Red Army so Jiazhen can display it on the wall. Life under Mao is a jumble of high hopes, guarded alliances, prattling propaganda, and disquieting realities.

“It’s good to be poor,” an ashen Fungui tells his wife after the execution of the gambler who had won his family mansion. He had refused to hand over the real estate, setting it on fire for spite, and was thus convicted of “classic counter revolutionary sabotage.”

The brave Chinese people bow to the decrees of Mao as they had the emperors who preceded him, gladly relinquishing their metal utensils to be melted down for steel in the Great Leap Forward. Mr. Nui meets Jiazhen’s half-hearted question about how they will now cook with cheerful disdain: “We’re racing toward communism and you’re worried about food?”

The graceful metal puppets are spared for now, as they are only worth about two bullets, but not so with other more precious commodities. Sleep deprived son Youqin labors at school, not behind books, but smelting iron with disastrous consequences.

Daughter Fengxia’s marriage is more like a military ceremony, bride and groom dressed in brown uniforms holding the requisite little red books in hand instead of flowers. A huge painting of Chairman Mao smiles down on the couple like a modern Buddha as they peddle away on a single bicycle.

Ultimately not so benevolent, though, as Fengxia experiences the full effects of the Cultural Revolution, with intellectuals forced into re-education camps, leaving the local maternity ward manned with only student nurses. 

Despite the human tragedies and ironic catastrophes that rain down like brimstone from a punishing god, what ultimately shines through To Live is the sweetness and resilience of the Chinese people, a picture reinforced by my travels there. I can only hope that their future may one day hold Jiazhen’s vision of “a quiet life.”

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Despite Comrade Liu’s promise that they will dine on “a whole pig stuffed to death,” the humble inhabitants of Fungui and Jiazhen’s village mostly get by on bowls of noodles which they slurp down at communal tables set in the dusty square. In at least one case these noodle filled bowls provide some comic relief.

Son Youqin asks for more helpings, and unlike Oliver Twist, he gets them. His bowl filled to the brim, he then piles on the toppings, in particular the chili sauce. With a mysterious and resolute smile, he marches to a far table and slowly pours it onto the chubby headed bully who had tormented his mute sister. 

I’d suggest you find better uses for the delicious recipe that follows.

Szechuan Hot Chili Oil on Noodles

Chili oil makes an excellent accompaniment to noodles and dumpling dishes, and is the secret ingredient in many popular Szechuan dishes such as Bang Bang Szechuan Chicken.

Made from chili peppers, it only takes a few drops of hot chili oil to add spice to noodles or simple stir-fry dishes. When preparing at home, it’s easy to increase or reduce the level of heat by using hotter or milder chili peppers. Either way, use chili oil sparingly at first.

Serve with: 

  • Steamed dim sum dishes, particularly dumplings
  • Stir-fries and Noodles (add a few drops to the dish or serve at the table)

Yields about 1/2 cup

Ingredients 

  • 6 dried hot chili peppers
  • 1 cup peanut, canola, or other oil normally used in stir-frying

Preparation 

  1. Cut the dried peppers in half or in quarters.
  2. Heat the oil over medium heat until it is moderately hot (about 240 degrees Fahrenheit).
  3. Add the chili peppers. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the oil darkens. 

 Recipe Source: Rhonda Parkinson