(The Story of Qiu Ju)
Hong Kong-China, 1992
Director: Zhang Yimou
Production: Sil-Metropole Organisation, Youth Film Studio of Beijing Film Academy; colour, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes.
Producer: Feng Yiting; screenplay: Liu Heng, based on the story Wanjia Susong by Chen Yuanbin; photography: Chi Xiaoning, Yu Xiaoqun; editor: Du Yuan; assistant directors: Hu Xiaofeng, Zhang Zhenyan, Tian Weixi; art director: Cao Jiuping; music: Zhao Jiping; sound recording: Li Lanhua; costume design: Tong Huamiao.
Cast: Gong Li ( Qiu Ju ); Liu Peiqi ( Qinglai ); Yang Liuchun ( Meizi ); Lei Laosheng ( Wang ); Ge Zhijun ( Officer Li ).
Awards: Golden Lion, best actress, Venice International Film Festival, 1992; selection, New York Film Festival, 1992.
Variety (New York), 14 September 1992.
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After making his fame on period pieces in which the willful young woman (played inevitably by Gong Li) confronts the formidable power of feudalism, Chinese director Zhang Yimou turned to a more contemporary story line and humble cast of characters in his fifth feature, The Story of Qiu Ju . This time leading lady Gong Li plays Qiu Ju, the simple but most stubborn country wife who decides to get justice for her husband—and ultimately, for herself.
At the start of the movie, her husband, Qinglai, has been beaten up by the ill-tempered village head, Wang Shantang, during an altercation, and Qiu Ju and relatives rush Qinglai in a litter to the nearest town doctor. When they arrive, Qiu Ju proves herself a pragmatic skeptic, wondering if the fellow is a real doctor ("He looks more like a veterinarian . . . ") and making sure he washes his hand before treatment. Our heroine is especially upset because Wang has kicked her mate in the groin. As she says, "But how could he kick you there where it affects future generations?"
At first Qiu Ju takes up the matter with the local policeman, who mediates a settlement which includes a cash payment. However, when the very pregnant woman goes to collect her due, Wang arrogantly scatters the money to the ground saying, "And each time you pick up a bill, you'll bow to me." Naturally, proud Qiu Ju walks off, with nary a cent—and seeks other remedy.
Soon she is going off to towns, accompanied by her sister, and it is comic watching this very determined and very pregnant woman waddling in and out of wagons and buses and in and out of various offices seeking redress. Meanwhile, the trips are financed by sales of great bunches of the red chilies the family grows.
As Qiu Ju climbs higher and higher up the levels of justice, she moves into more modern and more foreign environments. In the big city, she and her sister stare in wonder about them as cars and motorcycles whiz by, when they find street upon street of shops and food stalls. Qiu Ju indulges herself by buying a "high fashion" jacket that is garish and serves only to emphasize her bulge.
Finally, she has to hire a lawyer to bring suit against Wang. In the end, in a kind of O. Henry twist, justice comes in a cold, swift way Qiu Ju did not intend. Gong Li here is unexpectedly unglamorous, with freckles on her ruddy cheeks, and waddling about in a heavily padded jacket. Her low-keyed and completely convincing performance won her rave reviews, as well as a best actress prize in at the Venice International Film Festival.
The Story of Qiu Ju is an intriguing experiment in filmmaking. Zhang actually enlisted the acting talents of a whole village, caught ordinary people unaware in their daily activities, sometimes shooting situations with a hidden camera using Super 16 film. There were only four professional actors used—for the characters of Qiu Ju, her husband, the village head, and the local policeman. As such, it has a languid feel, with far less tension than his usually tightly constructed films. Perhaps because of the deliberately down-played tone of Qiu Ju , the cinematography is pedestrian. It is competent but certainly not outstanding—something which we have come to expect in the films of one who was first trained as a cinematographer.
Some Western critics were enraptured by the film, sensing the truth of a kind of Neo-Social Realism in it. And indeed, here was a feature that showed the craggy humdrum aspect of Chinese life few Westerners had seen up close. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that the film "reaffirms Zhang Yimou's stature as storyteller and sociologist extraordinaire, and as a visual artist of exceptional delicacy and insight."
However, others, who have been to China, know that village life and the government bureaucracy are much more gritty and harsh than Zhang has let on. Indeed, some have accused the director of deliberately trying to please the cadres with his portrayal of decent and upstanding functionaries, especially when in reality indifference and corruption are rampant.
Still, as China's best-known director, perhaps Zhang is held to account for more than his share of responsibilities. After all, his ambitions in this film were modest. Zhang has said, "I strived for realism because I felt this was the best way to convey the true spirit and simplicity of the people of China's countryside, who for me are the heart and soul of China itself." In 1992 the film won the top prize of the Golden Lion and the best actress award for Gong Li at the Venice International Film Festival. It was also a selection of the New York Film Festival.