The story begins some time in the 1940s. Xu Fugui (Ge You) is a local rich man's son and compulsive gambler, who loses his family property to a man named Long'er. His behaviour also causes his long-suffering wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) to leave him, along with their daughter, Fengxia and their unborn son, Youqing.
After he loses his entire family fortune, Fugui eventually reunites with his wife and children, but is forced to start a shadow puppet troupe with a partner named Chunsheng to support his family. The Chinese Civil War is occurring at the time, and both Fugui and Chunsheng are forcibly enlisted into the Kuomintang during a performance. After a heavy battle, Fugui and Chunsheng are captured by the forces of the Communist Party of China, where they quickly become entertainers for the troops. Eventually Fugui is able to return home and finds out that Fengxia has become dumb and lost m
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