Before the epics, before the over-blown spectacles, and long before the ostentatious pageantry, Zhang Yimou was one of China’s great neorealist directors. His films gave voice to the poor rural class without ever pandering to audience sentiment. Maybe it was his circumspect background: his father was an officer in the Nationalist Kuomintang army and one of his brothers fled to Nationalist-safe haven Taiwan, which led to Zhang never fully embracing the Communist doctrine. The path that Zhang took to eventually become the most well known Chinese director in the Western world was fraught with many setbacks, though. During the Cultural Revolution, Zhang, after finishing high school, was forced to work in the fields, farming with the peasant class and then he was later sent to work at a textile factory in the city of Xianyang. During all of this though, Zhang’s fascination with visual imagery and, more specifically, the cinema would ultimately lead him to sell his own blood just to purchase a camera and then, after Mao’s death in 1976, to apply to the Beijing Film Academy.
At the Beijing Academy, Zhang’s skill at photography would quickly land him a job as cinematographer for several small inland studios right after graduation, allowing him the opportunity to work with fellow Fifth Generation directors, Chen Kaige and Zhang Junzhao. This small group of filmmakers and craftsmen that would ultimately make up China’s Fifth Generation of artists all grew up under the harsh regime of the Cultural Revolution and thus had a very skeptical viewpoint on China’s totalitarian policies. Foregoing narratives that were overtly political or self-congratulatory, Zhang and his compatriots used the cinema to tear down the myths that the Communist party had been perpetuating since the regime took power.
Zhang’s first three films, Hong Gaoliang (Red Sorghum, 1987), Ju Dou (1990), and Dahong Denglong Gaogao Gua (Raise The Red Lantern, 1991), were intimate epics that were praised internationally for their pictorial beauty as well as their anti-authoritarian and pro-feminist messages. Yet all the attention Zhang’s films were receiving in the West quickly made him an unpopular figure with the Communist party and both Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern were banned in Mainland China. To appease the censors and escape the ire of the Chinese government Zhang decided to adapt contemporary Chinese author Chen Yuanbin’s novella The Wan Family’s Lawsuit for the screen. After casting his muse, Gong Li, production for Qiu Ju Da Guan Si (The Story Of Qiu Ju, 1992) began in the northwest Shaanxi province.
Although Zhang’s previous three films dabbled in neorealist tropes like on-location shooting, a rejection of Hollywood pacing, and a sensitivity to social issues it was with The Story Of Qiu Ju where he truly earned the right to stand beside neorealist pioneers like Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. Literally taking his camera to the streets Zhang and his crew would hide in plain sight and devoted a majority of the film’s running time to documenting the minutiae of everyday life. And, what Zhang captures with his camera is nothing less than a nation at the cusp of transition. We are privy not to Mao’s China, but rather the China of Deng Xiaoping and his socialist market economy.
The grimy cinema verite style look to the film gives the story a very improvisatory feeling. And with there being only three professional actors in the cast there may not have been a choice for Zhang but to let his untrained performers just be themselves. Whatever the case may be the documentary aesthetic he uses definitely works to the film’s advantage. The film’s cold open which is that of a bustling street with hundreds of people just going about their usual routine is so mundane and unassuming, unlike the openings in Red Sorghum or Raise The Red Lantern, and yet Zhang doesn’t back down, but instead lingers on the shot, neither tilting or panning his camera or cutting to a more conventionally interesting shot for a good two minutes. Eventually two women pulling a large wooden cart enter the frame and we follow them as they make their way towards a nondescript building. After their cart is parked in front of the building, a man ambles out of the cart, assisted inside by the two women. We soon find out that they are in a doctor’s office and the man in the cart is in need of some medical attention after being kicked in the groin during a physical altercation with the village chief. During his checkup, the two women, Meizi (Yang Liuchun) and Qiu Ju (Gong Li), go outside to give the men some privacy. While waiting Qiu Ju voices her concern for her husband’s well being by offhandedly commenting that the man doing the checkup looks “more like a vet” than a doctor. Zhang then cuts forward into time and the man eventually exits out of the building and gets back onto the cart and all three make the trek back home.
This entire sequence runs no longer than five minutes and although a less confident director would have trimmed a lot of the fat and played up the fact that the man was kicked in the groin as a punch line to a joke, Zhang lets the viewer slowly ease into the film’s reality and doles out the information we need to know in a matter-of-fact way. This attention towards capturing life-as-it’s-really-being-lived lends the film a certain charm and quaintness. Later on in the film, Zhang has a scene at a government office where a young couple that are applying for a marriage license are being interviewed, and as the officer questions and drills them about their relationship, both boy and girl can’t help but blush, laugh, and be embarrassed about the personal questions being asked of them. Are they merely actors? Or were Zhang and online casino his crew during that day’s filming lucky enough to stumble upon that specific couple who were really applying for a marriage license? This blending of fiction and documentary is what propels this character study into the realm of cinematic masterpiece.
The Story Of Qiu Ju is ostensibly a simple tale; it is the story of Qiu Ju’s obsessive need to get justice for her husband, Wan Qinglai (Peigi Liu), after the village chief seriously injures him. Although she wins at every court she takes her case to, what China’s judicial bureaucrats consider justice is not at all satisfying for Qiu Ju and thus she spends almost an entire year traveling back and forth from the barren countryside to China’s bustling urban centers. Qiu Ju looks at the monetary compensation the courts keep awarding her as insufficient and also a way for the government to skirt around acknowledging the crime perpetrated on her husband.
You can’t help think that, with this film, Zhang was maybe commenting on China’s shift towards a free market system, and that the China that rose up after Mao’s death was in many ways becoming like the capitalist West. The character of Qiu Ju herself is the embodiment of a typical rural peasant woman, a throwback to a Mao-era Communist archetype. And Qiu Ju’s travels into the country’s urban centers make her seem like a walking-talking anachronism, too honest and naïve to survive this new, materially prosperous, and cutthroat environment. She demands an Old World type of justice that is rooted in long abandoned ideals such as honor and duty. The legal system believes it has done right by appeasing her with money, but Qiu Ju is not one of the sharply dressed masses that clog China’s city streets. Her wardrobe is rather dusty, drab, and unhip, forever linked to the land that she and her family must work to survive.
For her performance in The Story Of Qiu Ju, Gong Li won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1992. And it’s Gong’s performance that is the backbone of the entire film. Appearing in practically every scene in the movie, Gong’s Qiu Ju could have easily gotten tired and repetitive portrayal. Although we are supposed to sympathize with Qiu Ju’s plight, Zhang’s film could have easily fallen into the trap many neorealist films usually fall into: unearned sentimentality. Yet, luckily for Zhang and the audience, Gong Li delivers a nuanced performance. It is easy to miss the little facial tics and character moments that Gong imbues Qui Ju with, but take the time to pause the film and really pay attention to her performance and it’s like watching a masterclass in acting. Just the way a very pregnant Qiu Ju walks, or more accurately waddles, in every scene is fascinating to watch. You can tell from her stride and gait whether Qiu Ju is frustrated, exhausted, or livid. And the way Gong moulds her face to subtly convey a range of emotions is the epitome of what screen acting should be.
Throughout the film, Zhang peppers shots of daily life with a mixture of Western ephemera: movie posters, clothing, and food alongside images of traditional Chinese culture. Street market scenes where we see chili merchants grinding dried hot peppers the way they’ve been ground since pre-industrial times are intercut with shots of urban sidewalk stalls selling posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chow Yun-fat. In fact, for the first time ever, Zhang sets one of his films in a contemporary milieu. Although Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise The Red Lantern were all set during the first part of the twentieth century, Zhang goes out of his way to give those films a very timeless look, for the most part obfuscating typical twentieth century items like automobiles, trains, or radios. With The Story Of Qiu Ju, though Zhang never strays from reminding the audience when and where the story is set. Be it the protracted scenes with Qiu Ju and Meizi commuting back and forth between the city and their village or a throwaway moment where Meizi becomes entranced with a simple soda can, the film is as close to a documentary as a fiction film can get. With The Story Of Qiu Ju, Zhang Yimou proves that simplicity in execution does not mean a boring or monotonous film. While many will think of Raise The Red Lantern or Ying Xiong (Hero, 2002) when Zhang’s name is mentioned I personally prefer his quieter films like The Story Of Qiu Ju or Houzhe (To Live, 1994) since they celebrate the beauty and comedy of everyday life.