The Story of Qiuju (1992)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-07-07
Qiu Ju lives in an isolated farm community with her husband and his family. She makes three journeys, each to larger, more complicated and more intimidating places in order to seek justice for an assault on her husband by the local chief. Zhang Yimou conveys a lot of information about China in the early 1990s including the relationship of the countryside to the city, the continuing importance of family ties and the rise of a nascent capitalism although still firmly bounded by the rules of the central government. He goes into detail on how the mediation system works, how judgments are rendered in court and the formal structure of civil justice in the People’s Republic. He shows us some startling images, including a communal bed built over brick fireplaces for those who can’t afford a hotel room, the sight of huge pylons carrying electrical wires into the distance, towering over an unpaved road where people walk or ride bicycles and what looks to be acres of food stalls in a medium sized city. He doesn’t explore the emotional lives of his characters nor does he show the reasons they have for doing what they do. Zhang records their actions and words—he doesn’t give them many words—and leaves the interpretation to the audience. He all but hides the ravishing Gong Li who plays Qiu Ju, eight and one-half months pregnant and always swaddled in shapeless, poorly-fitting clothing. The actress who burst onto the film world like lightning across the night sky is stubborn, petulant, confused and not very smart.

Zhang makes extensive use of long and medium long shots which distances the audience from the characters and at times gives the film a documentary feel. His camera has an almost “objective” point of view—as if there is no point of view at all but simply the recording of events that unfold while filming. Adding to this feeling is that the camera not only keeps its distance but also keeps its place—while there are plenty of pans and tilts, the camera itself doesn’t move much, with few tracking shots. All the movement takes place within the limited field of the lens. An example of this is when Qiu Ju and Mei Zi meet with Officer Li for the first time in the village hall. It begins with some very informal testimony of two men who have been in a fight. Their testimony is very true to life with the men repeating themselves, interrupting each other and always using ten sentences where a few words would do. Officer Li is one of the officials listening to the two men. When Qiu Ju and her sister-in-law enter the large room and ask for him, Li doesn’t hesitate to leave this unedifying case to listen to them. But while we see and hear the three of them talking, they never become the real focus of the scene. The camera doesn’t move from its fixed position, simply pans and tilts a bit so that they are now in focus beyond the participants in the initial case. Those people are now in the foreground of the shot, a bit out of focus and their discussion reduced to a murmur while we watch Officer Li and the two women. Like everyone else in the room we are simply overhearing them—and no one but the audience is interested in anything they say since everyone else has their own problems to deal with. Porters bring tea, someone passes around cigarettes, and people come and go. Qiu Ju is simply another petitioner, one among many, whose case isn’t very important but because she has come to the village court she must be heard.

Gong Li is superb in this scene as she is in the entire movie. She does a wonderful job of impersonating a stolid, stubborn and determined peasant, one who feels she and her family has been wronged and who won’t give up until she gets redress on her terms. She stands in front of Officer Li insisting that he intervene into the case and force chief Wan to apologize to her husband for kicking him in the groin during an altercation. Her husband had taunted chief Wan for his inability to father sons (he has four daughters) and got the potentially disabling kick from him in return. It makes no difference to Qiu Ju that her husband is recovering and doesn’t want her to pursue the complaint and she is unmoved by his fear that his neighbors already think she is strange by even going so far as the village. Qiu is the undisputed queen of her household, ruling her sister-in-law like a servant and ignoring her husband’s pleas to halt her campaign.

Qiu Ju wants justice, but on the terms she defines. Officer Li mediates the dispute and tells chief Wan that he has to pay for her husband’s medical bills and lost wages, a total of 200 yuan. When she goes to his home to collect he throws twenty 10-yuan bills on the ground and tells her to pick them up, bowing to him twenty times. This is clearly the wrong approach and we see that neither of them is willing to compromise. She wants an apology; he wants to simply get on with things. She journeys to the District where a higher official upholds Li’s judgment then to the City where the decision is the same. She has won but until the chief apologizes in the way she wants him to she refuses to stop. Her stubbornness and unwillingness to give the chief even the slightest bit of face becomes annoying and then begins to be obsessive. Her husband has largely recovered—although that he still isn’t able to do heavy work becomes an important hinge in the story later on—and he wants her to end her crusade. She uses most of the proceeds from the family’s chili crop to finance her longer and longer journeys. No matter what hardship she, her sister-in-law or her husband have to endure she simply won’t stop.

Casting Gong Li in this role was brilliant. Even costuming her in layers of extremely unbecoming slacks and jackets and keeping the lower part of her face hidden by a big scarf—we don’t see her entire face until 22 minutes of the movie have passed with her on screen for most of that time—Zhang knew the power of simply focusing the camera on her. Gong Li is one of the true screen beauties of the last decade of the twentieth century and first decade of this one. Making her visible yet hidden keeps the audience on edge, waiting for that full screen shot of her astounding face (a shot that doesn’t happen until the last seconds of the movie) but also makes Qiu Ju antics much more bearable since we tend to allow true movie stars—or characters played by them—much more leeway than we would others.

At the time it was released “The Story of Qiu Ju” was controversial for a number of reasons, especially its depiction of the Mainland China system of justice. Qiu Ju is welcomed at each level of appeal by polite, helpful and always patient functionaries who are interested only in making sure she gets a full hearing. She is never turned away, never ridiculed for being an unsophisticated woman from the country, never (with one exception) cheated. Everyone that she encounters at the succeeding levels, whether officials, hotel keepers or simply people on the street treat her and Mei Zi with respect. Zhang showed the bureaucracy of the PRC to be populated solely by dedicated civil servants and military officers who always decided cases on their merits and were invariably helpful when she wants to continue to press her case to a higher court. Zhang obviously wanted to show PRC officialdom in the best possible light. Why he wanted to do this is an open question although part of the answer may be had by determining who he considered his audience to be. While this film did very well at festivals, winning the Golden Lion at Venice and doing well at Chinese festivals, one might assume that part of the intended viewership were the very people that were represented in such a benign light. It is difficult to embarrass self-important officeholders by praising them too much and Zhang, working under tight censorship in China, may have wanted to show his censors how much he really loved them.

Among the recurrent images in “The Story of Qiu Ju, the two that dominate are face and money. Qiu Ju knows the price of everything—almost everything, she gets taken advantage of by a crooked cab driver in the City—and bargains constantly. She is willing to walk, ride in the back of a farm wagon or on the fender of a bicycle pedaled by Mei Zi if it will save a bit of money on travel expenses. She wants a cheap hotel room, then a really cheap hotel room, then a room that must be the cheapest in town. Unfortunately all her parsimony goes toward having money to throw at her case against the chief and not to saving for her child or helping her husband’s family. Chief Wan is consumed with the idea of face. He is only willing to settle the case on the narrowest legalistic grounds, refuses to consider an apology and insists that Qiu Ju lose face as part of a deal that ends the dispute. In the end both of them are losers.

Reviewer Score: 7