VENICE–Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director most accessible to the West, found an arthouse following for his beautifully made “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern.””The Story of Qiu Ju” is another jewel in a series linked by its iron-willed heroines. Adapted from a novel set in rural China, it marks Zhang’s first contemporary story, and as such lacks the exotic visual pageantry that was a big attraction in his previous films. Yet this simple, repetitive tale has a mesmerizing ability to hook audiences from beginning to end and should have similar box office potential.
Zhang’s leading lady, Gong Li, forgoes glamour to play a round, pregnant peasant, Qiu Ju. Her young husband (Liu Peiqi) is laid up after being kicked in the groin by the head of the village (Lei Laosheng) over an insult regarding virility and sexism. The chief has four daughters, and Chinese family planning won’t let him try again for a male heir. When the young husband reminds him of this in the heat of an argument, he receives the debilitating kick.
Qiu Ju makes up her mind that the village chief must “offer her an explanation” for the damage he did to her husband; i.e., apologize. This the old man, who is as stubborn as she, refuses to do. Qiu Ju thus embarks on a series of pilgrimages in order to receive justice, which for her means an apology.
But first the local mediators, then the city court judges, don’t understand that it’s a question of principle. They just rule the village chief must pay damages, which Qiu Ju could care less about. Her dogged determination to “stand up for her rights” continues even after it puts her marriage in jeopardy. In a final twist, Qiu Ju tastes a very bitter victory. Viewers are left to draw the line between a thirst for justice and obsession.
Portrayed with enormous humanity by Li, Qiu Ju embodies the simple, honest spirit of the Chinese country folk, adding a heroic stubbornness all her own. Her trips to the city, toddling with her big belly, at the side of her young sister-in-law, are imbued with humorous grandeur. The two women are the center of Zhang’s vast canvas of Chinese life. Many of the crowd shots, which have a striking authenticity, were snatched using a hidden camera.
Equally striking is the village folks’ close-knit solidarity. The quarrel between Qiu Ju and Lei Laoshen takes place alongside friendly offers of tea and food. For the Chinese, the film can be seen as criticizing the authorities’ distance from the people’s lives and concerns; at the same time, it publicizes a new Chinese law that allows citizens to appeal official decisions.
High-pitched songs punctuate the fablelike tale with authentic local music. The cinematography swings from panoramas of majestic mountains and bustling cityscapes to the intimate scenes of family life. Even without the stunning visuals of Zhang Yimou’s earlier films, “Qiu Ju” has much to offer the discerning viewer.