Unseemly kick inspires compelling 'Story of Qiu Ju'

MOVIES

June 18, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Story of Qiu Ju"

Starring Gong Li

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Released by Sony Pictures

Unrated

***

DTC When the village chief kicked Qiu Ju's husband in the testicles after the impudent man had made light of his inability to make male heirs, he probably didn't give it a second thought. He was the chief. Who was this worm but a chili farmer on some patch of scabby land outside the village, to be sent scuffling home?

Talk about your classic Bad Career Move.

For in his unrepentant way, the chief had engaged the ire of Qiu Ju, a kind of mini-Terminator from rural China, who . . . just . . . keeps . . . coming.

Astonishment No. 1 in the gripping fable that is "The Story of Qiu Ju," opening today at the Charles, is that behind the green scarf and the red quilted jacket and the nondescript black pants that constitute Qiu Ju's entire wardrobe there lies no less imposing a figure than Gong Li, one of the world's great actresses and beauties. But Gong has completely lost herself in this dreary, one-dimensional and possibly a little bit nutty farmer's wife who makes it her life's mission to tweak an apology from the chief.

Astonishment No. 2 is that "The Story of Qiu Ju" is utterly different from the previous films of Zhang Yimou, the great Chinese director and collaborator with Gong Li. His other movies -- the glorious "Raise the Red Lantern," the stunning "Ju Dou" and the awesome "Red Sorghum" -- were polished, epic and resonant, exercises in cinema design flawlessly executed, each frame an image of conspicuously controlled lyricism. When the red lantern was raised in front of the chosen concubine's house in the nobleman's courtyard in the film of that title, it was an emblem of lust and betrayal, of metaphorical political meaning and as gorgeous and resonant a pure image as could be found in world cinema.

"The Story of Qiu Ju," by contrast, is scruffy and picked up, shot on the sly on the outskirts of a dreary provincial city. It's like a Mike ("Riffraff") Loach film, full of the stuff of real life: squalid little government offices, dirty cold houses, dusty roads, city streets full of grifters and the blue dense air of congestion. The movie gets farther into the fabric of the real, rather than the mythic, China than anything in years.

It's also a society so rigidly hierarchical it's like a maze. When Qiu Ju decides an apology must be forthcoming, she enters a Wonderland of petty officials and endless rules, waits and hearings. Yet Zhang's view of modern China is generally benevolent. It may not work but nobody is actively evil; they're just regular Joes, trying to go along to get along.

Cultural values soon emerge. Even her husband begins to warn her off. "People will say we're different," he whines, responding to the pressures of conformism that oppress him. But Qiu Ju hardly hears and has no wider perspective; the case becomes her white whale and her standards become impossibly high. She rejects the cash settlement the chief has thrown on the ground; another settlement is rejected when the judgment is not sent directly to her. On she goes, even into her ninth month of pregnancy.

The movie ends on a filigree of irony so wrought-iron perfect it had to be conceived by the Chinese O. Henry, one of those twists that sums up everything that comes before yet sends it spinning off in a new direction. It's amazing how a great storyteller like Zhang can turn a tempest in a teapot into a mythic voyage across storm-tossed seas -- without ever losing contact with the teapot.

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