China in the mid-'40s: relatively well off until his gambling results in the loss of the family house, Xu Fugui (Ge You) is temporarily abandoned by his pregnant wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) and their deaf-mute daughter Fengxia. Poverty, however, brings him to his senses, and when, working as a travelling shadow-puppeteer, he finds himself embroiled in the Civil War. But as Mao's regime tightens its grip with ever sterner strictures, it becomes harder and harder merely to survive.
A straight synopsis may make Zhang Yimou's film sound similar to The Blue Kite, or even, perhaps, Farewell My Concubine. Certainly it shares with these films both a mix of the personal and the political, and a panoramic view of Chinese life. There, however, the similarities stop. For Zhang's purpose is less to show the oppressive iniquities of Mao's era than to evoke the optimistic spirit that allowed people to survive it. Accordingly, the film is lighter in tone, less provocative, complex and tough, even leavening scenes of misfortune with surprising incursions of black comedy.