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Chinese Reality #7: The Story of Qiu Ju

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

The Story of Qiu Ju (dir. Zhang Yimou)

The Story of Qiu Ju (dir. Zhang Yimou)

Today’s film:

Qiu Ju da guan si (The Story of Qiu Ju)

1992. China. Directed by Zhang Yimou. With Li Gong, Peiqi Liu, Liuchun Yang.

While many of Zhang Yimou’s lavish allegorical films were censored, this remarkable foray into realism was screened and celebrated in his homeland. With longtime muse Gong Li as a peasant woman seeking justice for her husband’s injury, Zhang used hidden cameras and long takes to capture a sense of everyday life in both the countryside and the city. The film suggests that the concern for realism among China’s independent documentaries and features could also be found in official state productions.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

While some critics have suggested some aesthetic losses relative to Zhang’s more obviously formalized previous features, I think this is his most richly textured work to date. If the beauty of certain shots is less readily apparent than that of some in Red SorghumJu Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern, this is largely because the story-telling functions of such shots are more fully integrated into the film’s overall rhythm and design. We’re never asked to stop and admire the attractiveness of certain colors and compositions, as we are in the earlier movies, not only because the camera style usually throws us straight into the bustling middle of every scene, but also because the content — the information we’re given about contemporary Chinese life — is much more densely flavored.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, May 28 1993

If a similar story were set in America, it would probably be made more obviously funny, and star someone famous for pluck –Sally Field, for example. Zhang’s approach is more understated. Watching the film, we find the humor for ourselves, and along the way we absorb more information about the lives of ordinary people in everyday China than in any other film I’ve seen.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, May 28 1993

The principal performers in “The Story of Qiu Ju” are professional actors, most notably his familiar star, the beautiful Gong Li, who again emerges as a figure of astonishing fortitude. But this film’s background figures are real people, caught unawares by Mr. Zhang’s cameras as they travel and congregate in public settings. Without diminishing the film’s dramatic interest, this realistic backdrop gives the film a documentary aspect, which is presented no less elegantly than the spare, historical details of the director’s earlier films. Once again, it is Mr. Zhang’s keen and universal view of human nature that raises his work far above its own visual beauty and into the realm of timeless storytelling.

Janet Maslin, The New York Times, October 2, 1992

The Story of Qiu Ju involes a leading Fifth Generation director shooting a major film in an unprecedented quasi-documentary style, using many nonprofessional actors, radio microphones, and hidden cameras to elicit naturalistic performances in actual contemporary settings. While the Urban Generation directors in the 1990s hoped to distance themselves from their Fifth Generation predecessors in general, The Story of Qiu Ju nevertheless helped to set a new standard for realist techniques in Chinese fiction film.

Jason McGrath, “The Cinema of Jia Zhangke.” In The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Zhang Zhen. Published by Duke University Press, 2007.

Qiu Ju, like Zhang Yimou’s other films, was made in the repressive political atmosphere of mainland China. Western critics have found in these films Delphic references to contemporary political matters and veiled criticisms of the regime and its censorship of free expression. They discover in these movies the spirit of Tiananmen Square. Jonathan Spence, an eminent Sinologist, reviewed The Story of Qiu Ju from that perspective. He noted some of the implausible details and unlike most critics recognized the humorous intent. But for him the depiction of communist bureaucrats as unfailingly prompt, honest, and polite at every level stood out like a sore thumb. He could not decide whether this unrealistic depiction by Zhang Yimou was intended to curry favor with the Chinese authorities or was part of the joke. He reports that after the censors reviewed The Story of Qiu Ju, they were so pleased that they decided to release it along with two of the earlier films which until then had been suppressed in China.

Spence apparently thinks that the censors were duped by the absurd depiction of their fellow bureaucrats because he believes that the film asks the “deepest question” about the communist regime that Zhang Yimou has asked so far, “Can there be any justice in today’s China?” Spence concludes that The Story of Qiu Ju is an important film and sees the spark of political protest growing in it.

Alan A. Stone, “Comedy and Culture.” In Boston Review, September/October 1993


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