The Story of Qiu Ju
A film by Zhang
Showing at Melbourne's Nova Cinema from September
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
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