Story of Qiu Ju by Yimou

Can a kick in the groin serve as the premise for a whole pictur? Apparently yes, judging from the new film, The Story of Qiu Ju, made by the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

I have been following Yimou's distinguished career ever since I saw Red Sorghum in the l988 New York Film Festival. His next two films, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, also won him international acclaim. Red Lantern, which was on my 10 Best Films list for l992 and is now available on video, made a powerful statement about sex, gender, and politics through the tale of a university-educated concubine who becomes the rebellious fourth wife of a feudal aristocrat.

The Story of Qiu Ju is a very different picture: a humorous fable of human justice. The film centers on Qiu Ju (Gong Li), an obstinate farmer determined to do right to her maltreated husband, willing to fight an impersonal and bureaucratic power structure. Qiu Ju doesn't want money for the damage and humiliation suffered by her husband when he was kicked in the groin–what she wants is justice, or as she says, an apology with clarification.
Though Capraesque in premise, Yimou's narrative is more complex than Capra's films. It is also suspenseful, with a number of unexpected twists. For example, when Oiu Ju's life is threatened in childbirth, the village's leader, who earlier assaulted her husband, assists her.

Yimou contrasts the meaningful intimacy of small-town life with the impersonal and unfeeling Big City. Qiu Ju and her sister are shown walking in wide crowded streets and nobody pays attention to them. But there is no idealization of small-town life: Yimou also depicts rural rigidity and stubbornness. Moreover, the movie's resolution is ironic; it's not a story of Capra's extraordinary “little people.” And true to life in China, at the end, the official political leadership emerges triumphant.

In tone and visual style, the new folksy comedy could not have been more different from Yimou's previous endeavors. This film is not as closed or formally stylized as Red Lantern, which won best cinematography from the L.A. Film Critics last year. Yimou says that in this film he consciously decided to focus more on the story than on the images. For him, the best strategy to visualize the narrative was “to put the camera at the character's level,” and “to use the camera as a character itself.” The result is a more realistic, open, and less intense film than Red Lantern.

It is interesting that Yimou's pictures revolve around women, and strong women at that. The professional relationship between Yimou and his leading lady, the beautiful Gong Li, began four years ago. During these years, he has displayed her considerable talents in very different features. Yet, there is a common thread to Li's various roles and to Yimou's growing film oeuvre. In all of their films together, Gong Li plays heroines who defy a rigid social order that relegate Chinese women to being passive and submissive. Of course, in each film, there is price to be paid for this rebellious defiance.

Ju Dou and Red Lantern were set in the past, but the new movie takes place in the present, which means that it is more overtly ideological. There is no denying that Qiu Ju occupies a special place in the director's output. Yimou was a victim of bureaucratic regulations, when he was not allowed to enter film school because he was over the age limit. But the irony is that he was deemed “too old” to be a student, because the school was closed during the years of the Cultural Revolution. As it turns out, Yimou fought to be treated fairly and finally gained acceptance.

Though grounded in a Chinese locale, the meaning of Qiu Ju–a comic nightmare of Red Tape Bureaucracy–is universal. Yimou says that in China, “one never knows who to talk to, what to do, where to go.” But my feeling is that most viewers could come up with their own “Qiu Ju Story.”

Qiu Ju, Yimou's fifth film, makes him no longer just China's most accomplished artist, but a world renowned filmmaker. With all the prestige involved in doing the international festival circuit and winning festival awards (each of his film has won a major prize), I just hope that his appeal will gobeyond the art-house audiences. Already honored at the l992 Sundance Film Festival as China's “Renaissance Man,” Yimou deserves a large public.