Qiu Ju da guan si

(The Story of Qiu Ju, China - 1992)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Gong Li, Yang Liuchun, Liu Peiqi, Lei Quesheng, Ge Zhijun
Genre: Comedy
Director: Yimou Zhang
Screenplay: Liu Heng from Bin Chen Yuan's novella "The Wan Family Lawsuit"
Cinematography: Chi Xiaoning, Lu Hongyi, Yu Xiaoning
Composer: Zhao Jiping
Runtime: 110 minutes

The collaboration between Yimou Zhang & Gong Li produced the best films for both parties. This is not so much because they worked so well together, though they did, but because they emerged as a voice from the People's Republic of China that was the most open to not following the party line without question. This made Yimou the Chinese director with the most unique vision, and resulted in Li emerging as a representative of the good and bad of individual determination.

Though Raise the Red Lantern and To Live are the most celebrated and well known fruits of the collaboration, I value The Story of Qiu Ju more. That is perhaps hypocritical because Story of Qiu Ju was government sanctioned. Like every Chinese director that attempted to question the party, Yimou had major problems in his homeland, including two of his films being banned. In his early days he was only criticizing Chinese feudalism (of course this includes an indirect critique of contemporary China), but this is the one time he took on the current regime. He does so in a way they find more acceptable than his indirect critiques, actually they liked it so much they lifted the ban on the other films. It's not as bleak as his previous films, instead more comedic with lines like "if we can't fix your plumbing we'll be stuck with the single-child policy for good." In spite of being an individual quest (Qiu Ju's sister-in-law is just along for the ride, she's never developed and hardly utilized) it emphasizes the value of the community, though that's something America could badly use in these arrogant days of challenging our neighbors to help us. It only attacks a lowly official rather than the government as a whole as a way to get past the censors, meaning the officials have to be portrayed as good guys who want to help the people (though they can still do dubious things like creating and upholding an unfair decision). Despite these added limitations, it seems able to do more to show the problems of the present day than Yimou's previous more critical but veiled attacks. Human nature was to say they'll never let genocide happen again to ennoble themselves after watching Schindler's List, but then few cared when right after that the Clinton regime turned a blind eye to that very thing in Rwanda. So even though Story of Qiu Ju doesn't have quite as much bite as the Gong Li suffers films, setting it in present day shines an obvious light on the current problems, not allowing people to just imagine what they would do if they were around in those days.

Exactly what the current problems entail is somewhat debatable though. I think the reason it gets passed the censors is they aren't quite sure either. The film could be about rising up and demanding what you think is right, or it could be about not setting the wheels in motion because you won't be able to stop them once you do. The speed the bureaucrats respond to Qiu Ju's petitions is ridiculously fast, but is that an absurdity joke meant to point out how unrealistic it is that Qiu Ju could get all these responses before having her baby or a concession to the party showing the officials in an ideal light?

Though the criticism is up for debate, certainly the film has no peer as far as offering the most information about life in present day China. The plot has Li's character Qiu Ju seeking an apology from the local village Chief Wang Shantang (Lei Quesheng) for kicking her husband Wan Qinglai (Liu Peiqi) in the groin. The dispute stemmed from Qiu Ju's husband wanting to build a shed on their farm to store their chili peppers, which the Chief (correctly) tells them is illegal because "the land is for growing crops". It's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of a policy that prevents proper preservation of the item it values. The problem betweeen the two is actually that the Chief misunderstood what Qinglai meant by raising hens. He should have taken it literally, but couldn't because he's so insecure about his wife's lack of success in having a son (they have been able to circumvent the family planning laws because of his rank, but are 0 for 4). As the Chief is an obstinate character that will allow her husband to kick him back or pay him compensation but won't lose face by admitting he's wrong, she travels from her almost completely natural area to places of increasing technology - to the village, district, and city for mediation then the district and intermediate court for the law suit. This allows Yimou to give us more than glimpses of what life is like in each area of the country.

It is easy for outsiders to connect with the Qiu Ju character because she is experiencing these places for the first time, just as we are. As her character is slow and undereducated, her delayed reactions are more the mirror of our own but might make natives impressed by their more modern state laugh at her. It's another case where your interpretation depends on who you consider the audience to be. This film wasn't only viewed by outsiders as some of the previous had been, but again it was funded externally, this time by Hong Kong. In any case, much of the films joy comes from Qiu Ju's efforts to navigate through the highly populated places without getting lost or ripped off.

Yimou's previous films used professional actors and were completely staged, but Story of Qiu Ju features many scenes that were filmed with hidden cameras and long range microphones, particularly when Gong is travelling through the various parts of the Republic. Whereas The Road Home was practically a love letter from Yimou saying how beautiful he finds Zhang Ziyi to be (since she left Hollyplastic after Rush Hour 2 she might even stay that way), Yimou has completely resisted making his even more beautiful then girlfriend attractive here. She plods around slowly, hunched back to balance off with her giant pregnant stomach, and she keeps her mouth slanted so her left cheek looks real puffy, almost like she took a few blows. The idea not looking attractive is worthy of awards is ridiculous, just showing how out of control vanity is in the movies, but it's important here that Gong never looks like a movie star. Due to her traditional attire and round shape she just looks more and more out of place as she gets farther away from her country home into areas of increasing westernization. The people in the city can thus react to her as they would Qiu Ju, not as a great star but as some funny looking bumpkin or someone that's simply in the way.

This film continued the trend of making Gong's character a less sympathetic figure. In Raise the Red Lantern, she is a product and victim of the little world she's thrust into, but she is no innocent. She quickly forms rivalries with the other mistresses and engaging in various plots so she can be the one that gets her way. Here she is as stubborn and overly concerned with her own pride as the Chief. Though he should apologize, and an apology shouldn't be that much to ask (but it is because losing face is worse than losing money there), it shows that even a simple problem doesn't have a simple resolution if the citizens can't come to their own agreement and are thus forced to involve the law and pay lots of money for "justice". Her never-ending quest to get the Chief to apologize totally depletes all her families' resources and earns them the reputation of being troublemakers. It also makes local Officer Li (Ge Zhijun) and the officials in the places she travels to look questionable for not getting an apology out of the Chief, which would probably get her into big trouble if she tried it in real life because face is what's important to the government. This is not to say that Qiu Ju isn't right about the Chief owing her husband an apology, but that the film doesn't ignore the selfishness and imprudence of Qiu Ju's motives and make defiance automatically equal to heroism. It doesn't make anyone out to be the bad guy, like films involving the law so often do, which allows the audience to examine everyone's role in the mess rather than pre-defining their notions. It also doesn't answer any question simply. Better yet, it shows that the more people you involve, the less chance you'll get the desired result.

What we like about Qiu Ju is her determination. She doesn't know the system or the law, doesn't have the means nor the education, but she won't let anything stop her in her pursuit of what she believes is right. There is a great spirit and purity there, even if perhaps a great stupidity. Qiu Ju's persistence could be seen as somewhat reflective of Yimou's own. Put to work on the farm by the Cultural Revolution at 16, he was denied entrance into the Beijing Film Academy when it reopened in 1978. He passed the test, but had to repeatedly petition to be allowed entrance because now at age 27 they had declared him "too old". I can see why some people would think this film is about be careful what you wish for, but I don't see why that film would come from Yimou given his background. I do think it's pretty obvious Qiu Ju is obsessed and takes her grievance well beyond the logical point, but that point should vary based on the problem itself.

Yimou's earlier films contained far more sheer filmic beauty than The Story of Qiu Ju. Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, & Raise the Red Lantern were films about suffering, but they had exceptional use of color and composition that showed why Yimou was a great cinematographer (he started out filming Chen Kaige's films including Yellow Earth). That said, this somewhat lessened the narrative force, easing the pain by distracting us with splendor. Story of Qiu Ju still shows some examples of technical excellence, actually though my favorite scene is the opening where people walk down the crowded street toward the camera until it cuts to a side angle of Qiu Ju and her sister-in-law Meizi (Yang Liuchun), suggesting any one of the masses could have had a similar story. This story is so good it doesn't really need much technique, and half of it takes place in the rural countryside, with scenic beauty that overshadows the reds of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern on its own. The Story of Qiu Ju gains in believability by filming in a more documentary than formalist manner, though it loses by being a comedy rather than a drama. Yimou's subsequent film To Live, which got him banned from making any films with foreign financing for two years, also didn't need to look like a cinematographer's film. Though his follow up Shanghai Triad, which saw Yimou move to genre, arguably had some allegorical force since then Yimou's films have fallen into more naïve narratives for the government (though not reasserting the communist values to near the extent that Hollywood does with the capitalist ones) like Not One Less & especially Happy Times or visual splendor that doesn't have much to say like The Road Home and probably what Harvey Scissorhands left of Hero.

The story goes wrong by trying to hard to become one of the village as a whole, and especially by having everyone be too kind to Qiu Ju. The difference between the tight knit rural community Qiu Ju would seemingly be carving a giant rift in and the anonymous overcrowded places Qiu Ju travels to is huge. I actually thought this was another period piece until Qiu Ju made her first trip and they showed a stand selling pictures of Arnold and Chow. But Qiu Ju is a proud and selfish character, qualities hugely looked down upon in communist China because they are associated with well off capitalists (you wouldn't know it from this story but then he wouldn't have to tell the Chinese people that), and the story is about her to the point that no one else gets any real development. Her sister-in-law could just as well be a slave, taking all orders and showing no individual thought except when she causes a huge delay running off after a bicycle taxi driver that had ripped them off while Qiu Ju is going to the bathroom (this does provide the funniest line in the movie when Qiu Ju says "someone could have stolen you"). Her husband eventually objects to Qiu Ju's journeys, but despite him telling her if she goes she shouldn't come back it's forgotten when she returns from her journey. The Chief and Qiu Ju continue to be loved by all, with Qiu Ju gladly welcomed into his house by all his relatives (this could be explained by them hoping for reconciliation). In some ways, the film is by far the most realistic I've seen from China, with only 3 professional actors and most of the others not knowing they were being filmed. Certainly it's a far cry from an unintentionally hilarious Hollywood attempt like The Good Earth. In many cases the people look and act as they would by default, but even though officials generally try to make you like them the probability of Qiu Ju only encountering two people that cause her any trouble, the chief and the greedy taxi driver, is almost a zero. I think there's actually more balance in this one because Yimou is making sure it actually gets past the censors, but while the balance helps make it a deeper more resonant story in some cases the party pleasing idealization also strains credibility in others.




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