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The Story of Qiu Ju

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1991, 100 MINUTES, COLOR

Reviewed by Arthur Barbeau

In The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang Yimou has created a film that is useful in giving students an excellent picture of life in China today. The film can be used with students at any level from middle school through college, though its length suggests caution with lower grade students with limited attention spans.

Most students today are visually oriented; they more easily grasp material presented though images than through the written word. Our students have seen much television coverage of China. These images, though, are mainly of Beijing, Shanghai, and some of the major tourist attractions.

The Story of Qiu Ju allows the student to see another China, that inhabited by perhaps seventy per cent of the population. It is the China of the countryside and those towns and cities not on the tourist or media tracks. Set in northwest China, its images can be used to illustrate many features of Chinese society today. The story line, compelling in a Kafka-like way, easily holds the interest of students.

Gong Li gives a brilliant portrayal of the pregnant Qiu Ju, whose husband has been injured in an altercation with the village cadre. She wants justice, which can only be achieved by an apology from the cadre. When the nearest Public Security Bureau awards them medical costs and lost earnings, Qiu Ju sets out on a journey through the Chinese legal system.

The decision is appealed to the county town and to the district city with essentially the same result, though she is told of further steps she may take. When her lawsuit also results in the same verdict, she appeals to a higher court.

During her many trips, Qiu Ju’s pregnancy moves to its final stage and she goes into labor during the Chinese New Year celebration. The midwife is unable to deliver the baby; the lives of both Qiu Ju and her child are in danger. Most of the villagers are away watching a local opera, and Qiu Ju’s husband must appeal for help to the village cadre. Enough manpower is mobilized to take Qiu Ju to the hospital where she gives birth to a son.

In gratitude, Qiu Ju insists that the child’s one-month birthday celebration cannot take place without the presence of the village cadre. As the festivities get under way, Qiu Ju learns that her last appeal has revealed that her husband’s ribs were broken village chief has been arrested for assault. The film ends as Qiu Ju fails to intercept the police vehicle carrying the cadre to his incarceration.

The film can be used in a variety of ways. It clearly demonstrates the difference between legality and justice. That the basic nature of the Chinese judicial system is mediating rather than adversarial becomes obvious. Gender roles in modern China are shown, though these are more true of rural than of urban areas. Many in the village are concerned that Qiu Ju has overstepped the bounds of a wife; her relationship with her husband begins to suffer stress as a result.

The continued existence of the extended, patrilocal family is still the rule in rural China. In that China, too, the communal kang (the heated brick bed) remains a center of family and social life in the winter. Students can see various forms of transportation, and the film accurately depicts differences between the countryside and various sized cities. The importance of celebrations, such as a birth and New Year, is shown, and there are excellent scenes of the sprouting free markets. Only the imagination of the individual teacher limits the number of questions that can be generated.

Despite the frustrating quality of Qiu Ju’s quest, the story is not without its episodes of humor. Qiu Ju and her sister-in-law are bumpkins in the city, ready to be taken in by some of the more sophisticated urban dwellers. China as a huge village of interested and concerned bystanders comes through on more than one occasion.

Gong Li is brilliant. Billed as “the most beautiful woman in the movies,” her portrayal of Qiu Ju clearly demonstrates her ability as an actress. The rest of the cast excel in their supporting roles, from the concerned local Public Security officer to the kindly and honest District Public Security chief. Her sister-in-law is almost pathetic in her dogged devotion.

In the end, though, we must come back to our students. Though a visual generation, they sometimes don’t use their eyes, relying instead on the narration to tell them what they are seeing. One technique that I have found useful, if used in moderation, is to cover the bottom of the monitor so that they cannot see the subtitles. Then, portions of the film are shown, forcing them to see what is there rather than being told what they are seeing. Used in moderation, they truly become observers in seeing many nuances beyond the story line. In a dubbed or English-language film, portions are shown with the sound off.

The Story of Qiu Ju is an excellent way to teach many of the realities of China today. It was adapted from Chen Yuan Bin’s The Wan Family’s Lawsuit.