Hidden documentary?

Issue 

The Story of Qiu Ju
A film by Zhang

Yimou
Showing at Melbourne's Nova Cinema from September

30
Reviewed by Peter Boyle

Zhang Yimou won international attention with his previous

films Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red

Lantern, and Qiu Ju has already won the Golden Lion

Award at the 1992 Venice Film Festival.

A comic fable set in contemporary China, Qiu Ju is very

different from most of Zhang's previous work. Qiu Ju is the

name of a very determined peasant woman who relentlessly

works her way through the legal system to get her village

chief to apologise to her husband for kicking him in the balls

in a fit of anger.

Zhang says that the de facto banning of Ju Dou and

Raise The Red Lantern helped him sympathise with Qiu

Ju's quest for shuata — which means

"explanation" more than "apology". "The

films were never released and nobody ever gave me a

shuata", he explains.

The Chinese legal system comes out looking quite benevolent if

bumbling, but Zhang's statement and his reputation as a

liberal film maker have led many critics to conclude that

Qiu Ju is a subtle criticism of China's bureaucracy. If

so, the subtlety may have confused the message.

Qiu Ju is a tale of a simple problem becoming quite

complicated once the bureaucratic wheels of "justice"

start turning. Yet Zhang insists that democracy depends on

individuals insisting on official justice. The moral of this

story could be that it is crazy to try to get satisfaction

from legal action on every quarrel.

Perhaps what is most politically interesting and daring in

Qiu Ju comes "on the side" of the story. Zhang's

camera (he made extensive use of a hidden camera) captures in

the background a graphic documentary of the economic and

social backwardness of contemporary China. We see the

harshness of peasant life and the oceanic divide between town

and country. Risking losing his audience, Zhang forces viewers

to taste the dull tyranny imposed by illiteracy and peasant

life as we follow Qiu Ju's cumbersome search for official

justice.

Zhang had personal experience of peasant life in China's harsh

north-west during his three years of compulsory work there as

a youth during the Cultural Revolution. As cinematographer in

the internationally acclaimed Yellow Earth, Zhang

displayed his keen observations of peasant life. But Yellow

Earth was set before the 1949 revolution, while Qiu

Ju's setting is contemporary China.

An important part of the background theme of Qiu Ju is a

sketch of the social values and controversies born of

underdevelopment, including the unpopular restriction on

family size and the traditional preference for male children.

Qiu Ju's husband was kicked in the balls because he taunted

the village chief for "only being able to raise hens"

after the birth of chief's second daughter. The preference for

male children reappears with a sober twist in the story's

ending.

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