THE STORY OF QIU JU (China, 1992) *** 1/2
Qiu Ju (Gong Li) is of the stubborn stuff that some heroes or saints are made of. She is a farmer in an advanced state of pregnancy. During a mild argument her husband was kicked in the groin by the village Chief. Qiu Ju, although worried that the kick may have made her man infertile, is much more concerned by issues of ethics, rationality and wounded pride. From the Chief she wants to exact "shuata," a word that the subtitles and the movie reviewers interpret as "apology" -- but the true meaning of which is "an answer, an explanation, a clarification."
Seeking redress, Qiu Ju presents testicular testimony to the local authority, Officer Li. Li ruling is a fine, but no "shuata," since this "will make the Chief lose face." The Chief does pay reparations, but by throwing 20 bank notes to the ground so that, he tells Qiu, "you'll bow down 20 times," he adds new insults to the injury.
Defiant Qiu takes her case to the nearby town, then to the unfamiliar city, and finally to court. The case of private parts becomes one of public hearings. Qiu's repeated peregrinations to various localities become an odyssey through bureaucracy, hierarchies, and arcane procedures. In short "Chinoiseries,"a term that in art parlance meant elaborate ornamentation in the Chinese style but later came to also mean extravagant and useless complications.
Zhang Yimou's previous movies were set in the past. "The Story of Qiu Ju" is contemporary - not that you would know from its first section : it is set in rural China and could be taking place 10, 20 or 40 years ago.
"The Story," over and above its personal tale is a fascinatingly realistic primer on Chinese life, ways, means and interpersonal relations. And it is also a discreetly handled metaphor of the Chinese system of justice.
Filmmaker Zhang Yimou treats his characters with a light and kindly hand. Except for city dwellers overcharging the country folks, there are no villains around. If anything, the officials Qiu Ju encounters are warm, friendly and mean to do the right thing.
But as Zhang has declared: "If you don't ask a question, nobody will ever give you an answer. You always have to fight in order that something be done. In China, you have to try 20 times, spend years in order to solve the most minor problems. To request that something be done is the beginning of democracy. With this film I wanted to say that every Chinese should do the same: to fight for one's right and discover oneself in the process."
Zhang Yimou could have added that what makes his message a mixed one and adds complexity to it is the notion that once you set something in motion you never know how far it will take you.
"The Story" is an extremely Chinese movie, and a marvelously ironical illustration of the famous Oriental "saving face." Yet go beyond the exoticism and you will find that the theme of a man or a woman up against the administration is of all times and all places.
The movie manages to show, as for example in the opening scenes, individuals standing out in the anonymous crowd, but without any tricks of staging, camera placement or editing. Yimou used only three or four professional actors. To his credit, you can hardly tell who is what. He shot the many street scenes with a hidden camera -- something that's impossible in countries where release forms must be obtained from anyone who just happens to get in he picture and is recognizable.
The quiet techniques of "The Story" are sophisticated. I am sure that Zhang Yimou knows his film history. Like Jean-Luc Godard he can delve on long takes but also use naturalistic ambient sound and filmic shorthand. He endows his movie with a special blend of humor and pathos, but no bathos. And when, at the end, he opts for the Hollywood-style twist of reconciliation, he modifies it with a second, original twist.
The life of Zhang Yimou, China's leading filmmaker, reads like a movie. At 16, the Cultural Revolution put him to work as a farm hand and as a laborer. Photography-loving Zhang sold his blood to buy a camera. When the Beijing Film Academy reopened in 1978, he was 27. Although he passed the entrance examinations, he was rejected as too old. Like Qiu Ju, Zhang kept appealing, on the grounds that he had waited and wasted 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. Finally accepted, he graduated in 1982.
After that, the rise of his career justifies the much-abused adjective "meteoric." He made his mark immediately as an award-winning cinematographer of major films, and also acted in movies.
In 1988 he began to direct. His first film, "Red Sorghum" won the top prize at the Berlin Festival. More awards, plus Oscar nominations, followed for his third and fourth films, "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern."
"The Story of Qiu Ju" won the Golden Lion (Best Picture) at the 1992 Venice Festival. Gong Li, also the star of Zhang Yimou's earlier films, won for Best Actress.