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Zhang Yimou's "The Story of Qiu Ju" is not a masterpiece as is his film
"Raise the Red Lantern." It doesn't have the epic qualities of "To
Live" nor is it as visually stunning as "The Road Home." But "Qiu Ju"
may well be Yimou's most thought provoking film, leaving you pondering
the messages a long time after the film has ended.
Qiu Ju's husband has been kicked ("where it counts") by the village chief. The only bit of justice Qiu Ju wants is an apology. It seems to be a simple enough request, but her search for the apology proves to be elusive as she encounters a legal system more interested in its own red tape than in the needs of ordinary people.
But this is not "Erin Brockovich" where the sides of "good" and "bad" are easily defined. The people in the legal system Qiu Ju encounters are genuinely decent folks. They are also, unfortunately, a bit clueless. And Qiu Ju is not beyond reproach herself. At the conclusion of the film even she is realizing that she has pushed the matter too far.
Just how far should one go to seek justice in this world? Even if you are totally in the right, does there come a time when you must let the matter rest for your own sake as well as everybody else's? There are no easy answers.
This is another great performance by Gong Li in the title role. She may be one of the most beautiful women in the world, but here she is not above playing "dowdy." And as usual, Zhang Yimou is nearly flawless in his direction. He gives a wonderful tip of the hat to the late French director Francois Truffaut in the end, echoing that famous final shot of Truffaut's "The 400 Blows."
But this is a film that will stick with you well past that last shot.
I've visited rural China, and this is the most realistic film I have ever seen. I was awestruck at how well this film captures exactly the China that a modern visitor to the country would see. Not just the landscapes---the people are portrayed just as they are. I carry a copy of this film with me to show my friends and family--I know of no better way to illustrate the China that I actually saw. In addition, as a film-goer, I loved this film for its austere simplicity of production. I found myself wondering how many of the people who appeared on the screen were actually actors---as opposed to just having a candid camera imposing itself into their daily lives. I loved the scene in the office where an official was issuing a marriage license to a young couple---this was a spine-tinglingly poignant scene that, to me, underscored the genuine humanity that would seem so impossible in such a country---a humanity that is real. The Chinese are lovely, gentle people, and it was a delight to see a film that accurately reflects this character.
Really enjoyed this one. Qiu Ju is the wife of a man who has been kicked
a neighbor, his village chief. She presses for an apology, largely (if
subtitles do it justice) because, even though his chest is what hurts
longer, he's been kicked in the "privates" and she wants more than one
child. She takes her quest for the apology up the chain of officialdom.
I couldn't get enough of the scenery - houses, city, carts, clothes, painted paper banners, dried peppers and corn - and the faces of people. As other viewers noted positively, the people in it didn't seem to be actors but real people, caught up in daily affairs and catching us up, too. The nearby village is somewhat familiar to her, but her trip to the city may have been her first. Watching her trying to find her way around, haggling for fair rates and help from a produce buyer, a bike-cart driver, a letter writer, a hotelier, and a lawyer was a lot of fun. Her trips seemed like a great introduction to the culture.
One of the things I loved was how the families and neighbors kept having complex interactions with each other throughout the ordeal. And the social roles in this were interesting: Farm/village chief to farmer, sister to sister, daughter-in-law to her in-laws, Party officials to their hierarchy and to citizens, country to city, women's role in general (as in what sex babies are preferred) and the strong stance of a specific woman like Qiu Ju, who seemed to be empowered as much as frustrated by the system and by her family and neighbors.
I read reviews of this as a negative comment on bureaucracy. If so, it showed a remarkably humane one. Flaws were on display but the overall tone was of acceptance.
The sudden ending left me feeling for the main characters. I seemed to see a judgment in it, but wasn't sure what that judgment was. I wanted to know how the story was interpreted in China, so I came to IMDB to at least see how others took it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After earning film festival awards and critical acclaim worldwide for
his powerful tragedies, Director Zhang Yimou explores new themes in
'The Story of Qiu Ju.'
Once again, he examines social injustice but this time avoids dark visions. The tone is ironic, but not angry or tragic, and the story often flashes with humor and wit.
Some critics describe this film as a protest by Zhang Yimou against the Chinese government. Yet, the tale could be placed in any village in East Asia or, indeed, in any time and place one finds misunderstanding, wounded pride, conflict, and resolution.
Gong Li, so beautiful in other films, reveals her acting versatility by portraying Qiu Ju (roughly pronounced as 'show chew'), as a hugely pregnant peasant. Gong Li had prepared for this role by living for months in a village of Northeast China to learn the local dialect and to get a feeling for this rural culture.
The story begins when Qiu Ju demands an apology from her village chief, who had injured her husband during a quarrel with a blow to the groin. She goes to higher and higher levels of government in her appeals for this apology, even after her husband and others urge her to settle for money. At the end, after some surprises, she and the chief have both learned some life lessons.
In the opening scene, Zhang Yimou draws us steadily into the rhythms and mood of the story when his camera gradually brings us past strolling pedestrians to introduce us to Qiu Ju and another peasant woman helping to push her disabled husband in a cart. We can see in this shot, and in other scenes, that bystanders were not aware what was going on.
Some even give puzzled looks at the camera, adding to the film's gentle humor.
Many other episodes gradually take us further into the culture and its story. For example, when Qiu Ju comes to the local government office to start her appeals, we first wait and watch while two teen-agers register their marriage. The district administrator has some fun by asking the shy youngsters if they will still love each other after their wedding night.
After hearing Qiu Ju's story, this district administrator urges her to settle for cash from the village chief. Yet, she pushes onward, patiently assisted in this by her woman companion in appeals for an apology to higher and higher levels of government. One of the film's best portraits is of this little peasant woman quietly standing by Qiu Ju's side.
She never questions nor complains; we all hope for friends like that.
The film's quiet tone and slow pace also give us time to appreciate some underlying social criticisms. Qiu Ju hires a lawyer to write and deliver a petition to the court. He tells her he will make sure that justice is served. She seems impressed. 'So!! You get money to make sure the right thing is done. Being a lawyer is good!!'
Yet, it doesn't turn out so well for her. The highest court in Xian, the provincial capital, has an impressive courtroom and set of procedures. Its jury of several judges collects testimony and ponders at length, but once again the verdict is upheld ..money but no apology.
This seems to be the end of the tale. Some big surprises turn the story in a new direction. She and the chief next learn to respect each other, but
See for yourself how it all turns out. You won't forget the vision of Qiu Ju at the end, bewildered and regretful, getting a verdict in her favor but that she did not want.
Those who have lived in any East Asian village will understand why Qiu Ju was urged to take money but not force the chief to lose face.
As one Chinese woman explained to me, ' .we and our families for generations lived too close to each other. We just had to get along. This was not always easy ..' She added that 'The Story of Qiu Ju' is the most understanding and affectionate portrait she had ever seen of the rural culture she knew as a child. Some Thai friends told me that the film also evoked childhood memories of their village life, where a Buddhist monk would arbitrate personal disputes and act to restore calm.
PS: This film was made in 1992, after the ending of the Chinese cultural revolution enabled Zhang Yimou to enroll in the new Beijing Film Academy. Since then, he's made many films with worldwide renown, including 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'Red Sorghum' with Gong Li and, more recently, 'Not One Less' and 'Hero'. You should be able to find 'Story of Qiu Ju' at any good video shop. It's already a classic.
Most Chinese movies are about victims of the culture or political system or
how beautiful you men and women are kept apart or forced together by forces
outside their control. This movie is completely different. It is a simple
story about the ordinary Chinese people you can meet on the street and in
their homes today and their ordinary lives. It is an amazingly accurate
portrayal, unlike anything I have seen before. I only spent 3 weeks in
China, but this movie brought back the feel of China, its people, and
Qxi Ju wants an apology from the Chief of the commune for kicking her husband in the groin. This is a story about her travels from the commune to the big city to try to get action from various bureaucracies. Although she is treated kindly and with much respect by the bureaucrats, she never gets exactly what she wants. It is fun to watch naive country girl Qxi Ju quickly learn about master doing things in the big city.
For me, the plot in this movie is secondary. It is each of the simple scenes that make this movie wonderful: The doctor's office is heated by a wood stove and the doctor chops the wood and feeds the fire. Qxi Ju's sister gives here a ride to town on the back of her bicycle on a snow covered unpaved road. They use dried chili peppers to trade for money to get a ride to the next town. Qxi Ju negotiates for the price of each thing she buys. The scenes all seem so realistic and beautifully photographed.
Yimou Zhang also made "Raise the Red Lantern" which gets higher praise, but that movie is about a world that is harder for me to relate to. This movie is like real life and real people and China today.
Gong Li, China's top actress in the 1990s (deservedly so), plays a
naive but determined innocent, a young married woman from a remote
farming village who wants nothing more than to have the village elder
apologize to her husband for kicking him in a fit of anger. The
bureaucratic nightmare she endures, making repeated trips to "the city"
to seek justice, exposes her to a system she didn't know existed, a
completely convoluted and impregnable one that operates solely by
standards and practices, totally devoid of compassion or an
understanding of the people it governs.
This is a small film, an earlier work by master Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (To Live, Ju Dou), but what really makes it work is Gong as Qiu Ju. Every effect of this effectless society registers on her face, mostly in the form of surprise at the promises unkept and disappointment at the lack of concern by officials who are supposed to be responsible to "the people." She makes us care deeply about Qiu Ju, even though we may not be able to identify directly with her circumstances, but even beyond this, she makes these provincial circumstances universal by being the everywoman, someone who just wants the people in charge to do what's right without it necessarily having any adverse impact on themselves. Gong's ability to inject political situations with sincere human emotion has made her an ideal representative of the message running through all of Zhang's films (she has appeared in several of them), but beyond this, she simply is a great actress who should eventually become as world renowned as Joan Chen once was.
What makes this film even more prescient is how well many Americans may identify with the nightmares presented by a government hierarchy overstuffed with "I just work here" bureaucrats. And the ending is infused with a poignant irony that will hit home with anyone who has, in their own lives, found that time heals all wounds.
This is a story about saving face and winning face, and what can happen
if you carry things too far. Gong Li stars as Qiu Ju, a peasant woman
with child whose husband is kicked in the groin by the local chief. She
wants an apology. The chief of course will not apologize since he would
then lose face. Both are stubborn and obstinate. Proud and determined,
Qiu Ju steers her way through the bureaucracy from the village to the
district to the city; but the thing she desires, an apology from the
chief, eludes her. He cannot apologize because he has only sired
daughters. He has license (he believes in his heart) because he was
insulted by her husband who said he raised "only hens."
The Chinese locales, from village roads to big city avenues are presented with stunning clarity so that the color and the sense of life is vivid and compelling. Director Zhang Yimou. forces us to see. From the opening shot of the mass of people in the city walking toward us (out of which emerges Qiu Ju) to the feast celebrating the child's first month of life near the end, we feel the humanity of the great mass of the Chinese people.
In a sense this is a gentle satire of the bureaucratic state that modern China has become. But Zhang Yimou emphasizes the bounty of China and not its poverty. There is a sense of abundance with the corn drying in the eaves, the sheets of dough being cut into noodles, the fat cows on the roads and the bright red chili drying in the sun. There is snow on the ground and the roads are unpaved, but there is an idyllic feeling of warmth emanating from the people. One gets the idea that fairness and tolerance will prevail.
In another sense, this is a parable about the price of things and how that differs from what is really of value. So often is price mentioned in the movie that I can tell you that a yuan at the time of the movie was worth about a dollar in its buying power. (Four and a half yuan for a "pound" of chili; five yuan as a fair price for a short cab ride; twenty yuan for a legal letter.) Getting justice in the strict sense is what Qiu Ju demands. Her affable husband would settle for a lot less. He is the wiser of the two. Notice how Qiu Ju is acutely sensitive to price. She bargains well and avoids most of the rip offs of the big city. But what is the value of being a member of the community? This is a lesson she needs to learn, and, as the movie ends, she does.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
When her husband insults a neighbor and is nearly 'emasculated', a peasant woman goes to great lengths to secure justice. Many people in the West may not understand why this woman is so determined to right such a 'minor' wrong. In Chinese culture, an assault on another man's "honor" is not viewed as a 'minor' thing; having children is very important and carries a greater social significance than it does in the West. It is expected of every man, and having a son, especially, to work in the fields for the good of the family and carry on the family name, has been worshipped as a Confucian ethic for centuries. China is still very much a paternalistic society (despite Communist reform),and the 'one child' policy has only reinforced the old Chinese adage that "if you bear a girl,bear a beautiful one, if you bear a son, bear an intelligent one." So understandably,from the viewpoint of Qiu Ju,not only does her husband suffer but her entire family name and honor suffers too, when the man is attacked in a 'sacred place', his gonads. The village chief, the fellow who delivered the disabling kick,has also been dishonored by the husband's insult about "having hens" and not boys. By kicking the offending man in the balls, the village chief wanted to save his face, hence the stalemate. But for Qiu Ju, and certainly in Chinese eyes, the greater wrong is the assault on her husband's reproductive organs. A delightful movie, so well acted with quite a few funny moments surrounding a serious issue. Zhang Yimou is one fine director.
This movie, "The Story of Qiu Ju", follows the actions of the main
character Qiu Ju, a determined rural resident who seeks out authorities
after her husband is kicked by her village chief.
One thing I liked about the movie was the plot - it was fresh and original. In addition, the ending had a nice little twist to it (although it was somewhat obvious what was going to happen).
I also found the movie to be very cleverly written, as they implemented comedy in a very subtle manner. One example is when Qiu Ju and her sister-in-law were in the city and they had just bought "city clothes". They looked very entertaining in those clothes, but also that scene was not made purely for comedy, because the writers were also trying to show that they were very country-side oriented and had probably never been to the city and they were trying to show how their lack of experience through their incorrect wearing of clothing.
This is a small thing, but ripe, all about learning to naturally go out
This is is first in the story. A wife demands to know why her husband was kicked "where it hurts" by a local official. Why did he do it? She ventures out in the village, then down in the city in search of answers. The tip of the thread that humorously guides us through different faces so that altogether we get a snapshot of Chinese life.
A constable arbites and gives his verdict, which seems perfectly reasonable, the accused will cover medical expenses and both parties are made aware that they were both wrong. But the wife is not pleased, she wants a more significant justice, and will go through the state apparatus looking for it.
This has led some viewers to think that we're meant to be seeing an individual being caught in the gears of an absurd and uncaring bureaucracy; that seems to be a handy interpretation we have in the West ever since Kafka. But that's not the point being made here.
Party officials, whenever encountered, are always benevolent and trying to be fair, quietly exasperated by the antics of the people in their charge. A higherup is kind enough to drive her back to the hotel on his car, another one stoically returns someone's stray animal. You can see why this among Zhang's early work was not banned over there.
But every new verdict from higher offices remains the same however, which is to say, the world is just so, maybe not ideal. Why make a fuss about why we do things, why stand so rigidly? There's no deeper reason sometimes and we're better off mending ourselves by moving forward, going along unconstrained by "right" and "wrong". This is often hard to translate to someone in the West because we have made ourselves stupid by arguing from principle instead of seeing what the specific thing in front of us calls for now.
And the notion of contrived uncontrivance extends in everything else. Zhang is aiming for a snapshot of life whereby we just mingle with things, what they used to call "neorealism" back in the day. The view it ventures to offer will be precious, a heartland generally closed to us.
More pertinently for me, it evokes a view of life, a warmth and sense of community I like. Lovingly obstinate in trying to fathom its tempests, pettiness without malice, quiet perseverance in simple things. Zhang lets all of this envelop in a natural way, as impulse that climbs up through the soles of the feet.
Gong Li is perfectly in tune with this, sublime in erasing any trace of an actor's face behind the shawl, making herself like a stump of uncontrived urges. We're meant to see that though a kind person, she's also a little dull in her fixation to an apology. And look how naturally she comes forth from her body, then watch her as the nervous empress in Golden Flower. What a range in which she moves freely.
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