Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Liu Heng (based on the novella "The Wan Family's Lawsuit" by Chen Yuabin)
The Story of Qiu Ju starts out with a statement of purpose. Its very first shot plays out underneath the title and credits, which is enough all by itself to distinguish it from Zhang Yimou's earlier films—Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern—which all gear up with their title bluntly rendered in a card all to itself. I'm tempted to say that merely having the first shot of a movie actually be a shot is the most important thing (even though it's not strictly true, since the production company credit on a black card does appear before any image). But while this sort of gently situates you into the movie instead, I guess the content is more important. So: while those other films do the remainder of their credits over images that convey unmistakable narrative content involving the protagonists of their narratives, and Red Lantern rather wallopingly so, Qiu Ju just... sits there. It sits there for a long time, somewhere between one minute twenty and one minute forty, depending on how eagle-eyed and committed to finding Waldo you are, before you notice any "narrative" at all. It's just a wide pedestrian thoroughfare in Shaanxi Province (where Zhang spent the first 27 years of his life), in a city that I don't believe is named (implied to not even be the biggest in the province, so maybe it's Xianyang, where Zhang worked as a textile mill employee for almost a decade). The shot uses what must be a hidden camera, given that it would otherwise be a tremendous miracle that out of the thousand or so people who pass it, only about six look at it.
This stream of people, a mix of townies and visitors, continues past the camera, and eventually a face resolves out of the crowd in the form of Gong Li, whose arrival is not announced (and could not be announced) in any special way. She's prettier than most, but that's it. You will almost undoubtedly only recognize her in the crowd many seconds later than you theoretically could, which on first watch makes it kind of jarring when you realize she's been here for a while already. De-glammed and anonymized in every respect it's possible for an international film star to be, Gong, to be blunt, looks like shit: she's wearing a green headscarf, baggy (possibly men's) pants, and a red-and-black checker jacket that doesn't fit because her character is very pregnant yet she's obviously too poor to buy a new one; and, indeed, she spends most of the movie wearing this awful thing, stuffed into what you'd surely assume must be the single ugliest costume she ever wore for a movie, except there's an even uglier one later on in this one, a blue-striped jacket on top of her red-checkered jacket, which prompts questions like "what kind of rube are you?" She occupies more or less the center of the frame here, but so do dozens of others. If you didn't know who Gong was, there would be no reason to notice her at all, just one more human in a great sea of humans. And that's the film's thesis statement right there.
I belabor it because, unfortunately, despite being done secretly, it's the last really managed shot here of any real significance, and while there's plenty of nice stuff still to come in its hidden camera documentary mode (and occasionally even in Zhang's more customary "leading light of Fifth Generation cinema" mode), the sort of un-composed, de-glossed, non-film that "hidden camera documentary mode" suggests is, of course, the point. In fact, simply making Gong look like shit was, itself, a point. Zhang's ex-wife had acrimoniously gone public about the affair Zhang and Gong had been having, and Qiu Ju was in a sense their punishment for this and other sins. We'll circle back to that, since it explains a lot here, though maybe it's not very meaningful from a formalist standpoint.
Well, it's only in the subsequent cut that it's made entirely clear to an uninitiated viewer that the humans we'll be following are Qiu Ju (Gong), her sister-in-law Meizi (Yang Liuchun), and her husband Qinglai (Liu Peiqi), the latter of whom is still only barely visible, swaddled in blankets and getting hauled by Meizi in a cart to the doctor. Qinglai recently got into an argument with the CCP's village chief Wang Shantang (Li Kesheng), who, amongst other things, kicked him in the nuts. The "amongst other things" will actually prove to be more important (he also kicked him in the chest), which I find to be a bit of a shame. It's probably a decoy anyway, as there's clearly something resonant in this context—it takes place in the 80s, though wouldn't have needed much modification to take place in 1992—about a party official who's punted some peasant's testicles back into his body cavity but only as a result of that peasant having made an untoward comment about the official's three children (two more than China says he can have) and how all of them are daughters (three more than China says he should have). It's also a shame that we don't see this event. If I had any notes to give Zhang, for this thirty year old movie made in another country, about what should've been his first shot, that would be it.
Qiu Ju, in any case, is very annoyed with Wang, so, in turn, she demands an apology, which she doesn't get, goes to the PSB's sheriff-equivalent Li (Ge Zhijun), who manages to extract compensation from Wang, which isn't what Qiu Ju asked for—plus when Wang tenders it to her, he does so by throwing the money into the wind and suggesting she kowtow picking up each note, which doesn't help—and so Qiu Ju escalates, going to the prefectural authorities, then back to Li, then to court, and then things take a bit of an ironic turn that I won't spoil, though if you've inferred that there's ever some massive swerve to this plot, I'm not describing it very well.
"My husband got kicked in the nards and I demand JUSTICE" is not as funny as it sounds (its literal Chinese-language title, Qiu Ju Goes to Court, makes it sound like an Andy Hardy or Ernest Worrell), and while there are occasional jokes made about the situation that might've been funnier on the other side of the language barrier, and there's a sense of vague amusement regarding Qiu Ju and Meizi's experiences as bumpkins in the city, any critic who refers to Qiu Ju as "a comedy" should get a kick in the nards themselves. I think I laughed at exactly one thing in the whole movie, when a fellow villager asks Qinglai if Qiu Ju is going to Beijing next, which is funnier in the context of a near-complete absence of jokes or quips otherwise. (Okay, two things: I laughed at her jacket-on-jacket ensemble.) I might've made a noise that sounded like a laugh at the social absurdity of the ending. But then, "comedy" isn't more inappropriate than that poster (I guess from around 2004) promising a movie "from the director of House of Flying Daggers," which obviously isn't a lie, but still must be one of the most misleading come-ons imaginable. If it had said from the director of Ju Dou—and you could throw in "from the writer of Ju Dou," Liu Heng—it would still barely track, because it isn't that concerned with drama, either. The difficulties that Qiu Ju encounters on her mission, which has little meaning outside of her personal sense of pique, are more like inconveniences than threats, or even problems. There's a kind of kafkaesque quality to the set-up that evaporates in the light of the actual process. What it manages to be, then—it manages to be a couple of things, but it manages this most of all—is an extremely light satire of Chinese society that is somehow, also, lightly propagandistic.
The big thing is that Wang just will not apologize for fear of losing face, even though it would literally cost him less than nothing if he did. That Qinglai, for his part, more-or-less accepts that getting his sack trampled is the natural result of criticizing the government is also, I suspect, something akin to commentary. And they couldn't possibly have explicitly mentioned the One Child Policy in dialogue a couple of times—in a movie where the plot involves gonads, and where the themes involve the superior grit and determination, which is to say the value and personhood, of a rural woman—for no reason. (Zhang, in 1992 already the father of one daughter, Mo, who grew up to follow in his footsteps, is known for his "civil disobedience" against said policy.) But none of this is pushed much.
Zhang's made a lot of movies focused on the dust-covered classes, and while even just this fraction of his work constitutes a broad spectrum of approaches, even the ones that tilt toward ambling neorealism, like To Live and Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, don't come off so completely observational in their style and rhythms—despite having a definite shape in Qiu Ju's quest, I'm not sure there's a single other Zhang film that feels more shapeless. Ultimately, a lot of Qiu Ju is just "about" what a farm community looks like, or what the prefecture seat looks like, and what the road in between them looks like—and what these places feel like to a Chinese peasant who lives in the former and sometimes has to brave the latter. Nevertheless, the Chinese bureaucracy she has to navigate is shockingly helpful and polite. Which is where the light propaganda comes in, though it does add to that observational quality: just a bunch of people living lives. It's a movie about a vendetta where somehow the tension noticeably de-escalates even before the plot finally gives it a good reason to.
But then, the whole project was a bit of a re-education in the countryside: besides the extramarital affair, Zhang and Gong had gotten in fairly bad trouble, career-wise and politics-wise, for Raise the Red Lantern. I will never comprehend why: politically, it mainly says, "China under the warlords sucked, good thing they're gone," and while it's about sex, it's not remotely sexy. Whatever it was, it did lead to Zhang's disassociation with Taiwanese and Japanese companies (did I identify the problem?) in favor of Sil-Metropole, technically a Hong Kongese firm though in fact PRC-affiliated; and Zhang and Gong concocted Qiu Ju with Liu's assistance as a bit of voluntary penance that would, coincidentally, get them out of the public eye while they decamped to a Shaanxi village with a small crew and even smaller cast (besides Gong, the cast of professional actors number four or five, with the rest of the speaking parts and extra parts being filled by actual villagers who reportedly welcomed the small film production as a lark). Hence Zhang's first neorealist picture was kind of make-work, which isn't the nicest thing to say about it, though Zhang understood workers and peasants in rural China better than anyone in his cohort, given the years the stifled artist spent actually being one. It did its job, anyway: Qiu Ju was more pleasing to the party, despite seeming like it should be less so.
I find it modestly pleasing myself, with the caveat that it does still seem like a waste of Zhang's time. It at least doesn't waste ours, which is nice: it's only 100 minutes long, just long enough to capture the frustrating repetitiveness of Qiu Ju's struggle, not quite long enough to frustrate us, and in the meantime it does wind up with a lot of neat footage of Shaanxi. On five or six or seven rare occasions, this even means a cool shot where Zhang obviously couldn't help himself, using shadows on the ground, or streams of light inside old, quaint buildings; slightly less rarely, it means some splashes of Zhang color (Qiu Ju grows chiles, which we find in enormous red bunches). More often, a lot of it is just interiors cluttered by stuff and by people, slightly claustrophobic but often homey, and scenes frequently introduced with completely non-germane conversations from the tertiary cast. Maybe even more of it really is just documentary impressions of what this place was in 1992.
The objection is that "this place" is not inherently interesting, and if I lived in Shaanxi, I doubt I could give the first shit. But, I don't, so I can. (If nothing else, that this is a backwater town is downright harrowing to me, agoraphobia-wise; and Zhang's hidden camera photography's good.) And anyway, eventually it does find its way into some actual narrative convolution, reorienting its general super-gentle satire into something more focused on the specific conflicts between these specific people, living in this specific milieu. It's about how fucked up things can become even when people aren't deliberately trying to make it so. It's not my kind of film, it's true, but Zhang has always been my kind of filmmaker.