By JANET MASLIN
Published: October 2, 1992, Friday
Zhang Yimou is the superb Chinese film maker whose life sounds like the stuff of legend (he is said to have "sold his blood to buy his first camera") and whose rural historical dramas (among them "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Ju Dou" ) would be accessible in any part of the globe. Now in "The Story of Qui Ju," which will be shown at the New York Film Festival tonight at 6:15 and on Sunday at 9:30 P.M., Mr. Zhang has attempted something more modern and no less fascinating. With the simplicity of a folk tale or a fable, he tells of a farmer's wife and her search for justice, and in the process he provides a remarkably detailed view of contemporary Chinese life.
The principal performers in "The Story of Qui 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.
"The Story of Qui Ju" is, for Mr. Zhang, exceptionally down to earth. It tells of a very simple problem. The pregnant Qui Ju (played by Gong Li) is incensed because her husband, Qinglai, has been kicked in the groin by a man named Wang, who is the head of the small village in which they all live. Qui Ju wants to know exactly what happened; she wants justice, and she is not shy about saying so. "If we can't fix your plumbing, we're stuck with the single-child policy for good," she grouses to Qinglai as she pulls him in a cart so he can visit a local doctor. The doctor, when first seen, is splitting logs with a hatchet instead of treating patients.
Slowly but surely the film carries the stubborn Qui Ju up the ladder of Chinese justice as she enlists ever-higher authorities to help her right this wrong. A local official, the smiling and compromise-minded Officer Li, initially suggests a monetary settlement to cover Qinglai's medical bills. He also advises the principals of the case: "'I want both of you to do some self-criticism. Is that clear?" But Wang, who is gallingly amused by Qui Ju's outrage, merely throws the financial settlement at her in cash, expecting her to retrieve it. "For each one you pick up," he says, with a smile, "you bow your head to me."
Needless to say, Qui Ju will have none of this. So she embarks on arduous journeys to see different officials, journeys that the film records with impressive attention to detail. In rural contemporary China, the viewer learns, a pregnant woman may travel sidesaddle on someone else' bicycle over icy roads if she wants badly to get to town. She may also haul a wagon filled with chili peppers if she thinks that can influence her case. Mr. Zhang, incidentally, still has a fine eye for the fastidious beauty of Chinese peasant customs. The simple farm dwellings of Qiu Ju's village are festooned with spectacular garlands of drying peppers and corn.
As Qui Ju travels to ever more modern settings, the film overflows with interesting information. In town, the viewer can see how certain Western images, like pinups of Arnold Schwarzenegger, have infiltrated the indigenous culture. The film also observes Qiu Ju's reactions to such things as dishonest taxi drivers (the taxi is actually a bicycle-driven wagon) and loud, printed leggings.
Along the way, it also notes the behavior of public officials toward a woman of Qiu Ju's beauty and persistence, and it underscores some of the more basic inequities of Chinese life. The original fight between Wang and Qinglai had to do with Qinglai's impugning his rival's virility, since Wang is the father of four girls. "He cannot have sons, so he takes his frustrations out on us," a public letter-writer maintains on Qiu Ju's behalf. Though Qiu Ju is clearly the strongest character in this story (and Gong Li plays her as a real force of nature), she has no trouble with the thought that sons are preferable to daughters.
"The Story of Qui Ju" manages to weave its dramatic spell while providing a clear, detailed picture of the way China works. From the petty graft at a cheap urban hotel (the rate is higher for those who want a receipt) to the way enemies, enmeshed in a bitter legal dispute, still sit down amicably to a meal of noodle soup, the film offers close and witty observations about Chinese daily life. The story's last moments, giving it an ending O. Henry would have appreciated, provide as much wisdom about Chinese hospitality and Chinese justice as what has come before.
"The Story of Qui Ju" reaffirms Zhang Yimou's stature as storyteller and sociologist extraordinaire, and as a visual artist of exceptional delicacy and insight. The Story of Qiu Ju
Directed by Zhang Yimou; screenplay by Liu Heng, based on the novel "The Wan Family's Lawsuit" by Chen Yuan Bin (in Mandarin with English subtitles); director of photography, Chi Xiao Ling and Yu Xiao Qun; edited by Du Yuan; music by Zhao Ji Ping. At Alice Tully Hall, as part of the 30th New York Film Festival. Running time: 100 minutes. This film has no rating. WITH: Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Liu Pei Qi, Ge Zhi Jun, Ye Jun and Yang Liu Xia.
Correction: October 3, 1992, Saturday
A movie review in Weekend yesterday about "The Story of Qiu Ju" at the New York Film Festival rendered the name of the title character incorrectly in some references. She is Qiu Ju.