An excellent film and proof that sometimes less is more, The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guan si, 1992) tells its simple story very, very well and in so doing creates compelling, understated characters while presenting rural Chinese life with remarkable authenticity. Director Yimou Zhang's recent success with martial arts extravaganzas such as Hero (Ying xiong, 2002) and House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, 2004) have brought him visibility in the west beyond the art house circuit, but as visually sumptuous as those films are, one hopes Zhang will eventually return to the kind of leisurely-paced character studies few do this well, and which has all but vanished from the high-concept Hollywood many Chinese filmmakers aspire to.
In present day rural China, pregnant Qiu Ju (Li Gong) and sister-in-law Meizi (Liuchun Yang) cart Qiu Ju's injured husband, chili farmer Wan Qinglai (Peigi Liu), many miles to the nearest town to see a doctor. During an argument, Wan Qinglai was kicked in the groin by Village Chief Wang Shantang (Quesheng Lei) after Qiu Ju's husband made what may have been a subtle insult about the Chief's lack of male children.
Nevertheless, Qiu Ju believes the Chief went too far kicking her husband in the testicles, and when he refuses to apologize she goes to town to file a complaint with Officer Li (Zhijun Ge). Li agrees the Chief overstepped his authority, but also recognizes that he's pig-headed and unlikely to apologize, and so instead orders him to pay for Wan Qinglai's lost wages and medical expenses.
Qiu Ju doesn't care about the money - she just wants an apology. The Chief's defiant actions - he drops the settlement, twenty 10-yuan bills, to the ground so that in picking it up Qiu Ju will "have to bow to me 20 times." This, naturally, only fuels Qiu Ju's resolve. The dispute escalates with Qiu Ju refusing to give up, taking her case to higher authorities, and Chief Wang Shantang refusing to budge.
What is all this trying to say? Perhaps it's that big government bureaucracy not only is incapable of solving simple disputes, but that it also has the capacity to make them even worse. Qiu Ju's actions, which include taking the Chief to court, may seem quite reasonable by lawsuit-happy American standards, but the film also acknowledges the Asian concept that Qiu Ju's actions threaten her family's standing in their tiny community, where "making trouble," even when you're in the right, is sometimes seen as even less honorable than the initial injustice.
Adapted from The Wan Family's Lawsuit, a novella by Yuan Bin Chen, The Story of Qiu Ju has a documentary air about it, with settings and characters so authentic that it's basically impossible to tell whether, for example, Qiu Ju's house (where it's so cold you can see everyone's breath) is a set or someone's real home, or whether the cast beyond the leading actors are actors at all also or real villagers director Zhang plucked out of the countryside. (Reportedly only two others besides Li Gong were professionals.) In one scene, for example, several couples are waiting or being interviewed at a local government office, applying for marriage licenses. They don't seem look like actors, and the effect of this charming sequence is that the audience feels like it's actually there watching something really unfold.
In any case the film also succeeds as a terrific document of Chinese rural life (and for that matter an urban China on the cusp of great prosperity), filled with little moments dripping with verisimilitude: a doctor, who "looks more like a vet," chopping firewood in his examination room, a goat being lifted to the luggage rack on top of a bus, chili peppers being ground at a street market, and Meizi's fascination with her first can of American soda.
As Qiu Ju takes her case to higher authorities, she must travel to the Big City, where her un-hip country wardrobe makes her an easy mark for the criminal classes there. Tellingly, in these street scenes obviously shot with concealed cameras, no one recognizes Li Gong, so utterly convincing is she as a poor country girl. The film has an equally interesting, probably deliberate "documentary sound" to it: in these street scenes, you sometimes have to strain to hear Qiu Ju and Meizi's dialogue amidst all the hustle and bustle, just as in real life.
Video & Audio
A bare bones release, The Story of Qiu Ju is presented in a 16:9 widescreen transfer that's 1.77:1 and approximates the original theatrical aspect ratio. The image is sharp and the color seems accurate, though there is a good deal of negative dirt here and there, especially during the English language titles. The optional (yellow) English subtitles are fine. End titles note a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, but this reviewer didn't notice much separation or oomph in the audio. Alas, there are no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Like Yimou Zhang's The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin) and Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao, both 1999), The Story of Qiu Ju is an excellent portrait of strong women in rural China, and not to be missed. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.