The Story Of Qiu Ju Review
It’s hard to believe that The Story of Qiu Ju was made by the same director who would later make Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Even when compared to Zhang Yimou’s other films of peasant life in the remote, provincial regions of China - The Road Home, Not One Less, To Live - all of which carry some degree of melodrama and over-sentimentality, The Story of Qiu Ju is characterised rather by tremendous restraint, in direction, in pacing, in performance and in simplicity of its story. In spite of this, it is perhaps the director’s most powerful and political film.
The story, as I’ve indicated, is a simple one – so simple, it can be summarised in a single line: A peasant woman in a remote country village, sets out through the various levels of bureaucracy to seek justice for an injury her husband has received at the hands of the village chief. It arises from an everyday situation of ordinary people in simple circumstances. During a dispute about some land in which some insults were traded, the chief of Xiqouzi village has kicked one of the workers, Qinglai, in the groin. His pregnant wife Qiu Ju isn't interested in the compensation that is offered for this unwarranted act of violence - all she wants is an apology, but the chief stubbornly refuses. Qiu Ju is just as headstrong as the chief however and takes her complaint to the authorities – first to the local policeman, then to the higher district and city authorities, and finally to court – but she is unaware what the consequences of her actions will be, now that the inexorable wheels of justice have been set in motion.
In every respect, The Story of Qiu Ju is a masterpiece of cinema. The deceptive simplicity of the script and dialogues reveal a complex account of human emotions and interactions about matters that are deeply important to people, regardless of their social class or nationality – pride and justice. Zhang Yimou knows that the strength of the story lies in these universal, human themes, and he knows that they need no over-elaboration or dramatisation for the audience to understand their import to Qiu Ju. The script is consequently lean, pared down and direct. Gong Li similarly adapts to this style and gives one of her greatest performances here. Even if you hadn’t seen her in more glamorous roles in other Zhang Yimou films, her portrayal of Qiu Ju here would strike you as remarkable. This is no Charlize Theron-style makeover – Gong Li assumes the role of a simple peasant with ease, stripping the characterisation of any unnecessary actorly mannerisms, aware of the strengths of the script and adapting her performance accordingly.
Yet, despite this apparent simplicity in direction and performance, the film manages to capture much, much more than the straightforward filming and delivery of the script. Relying less on the natural beauty of the Chinese landscape that Zhang Yimou, not without right, uses in his other films – (even his most recent film Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, which is very much a return to this style of filmmaking), the approach to the filming of the locations of the village, town, and city is nonetheless perfectly appropriate to the circumstances and environments in which the characters carry out their daily lives. Every single scene is unassumingly filled with all the background information the viewer needs to know about the lives these peasants lead, their lack of education, their impoverished circumstances, their struggle for daily existence, the vital importance to have an active, healthy man working to earn the little money they need to live, and the consequent necessity to engender a son when there are strict laws about the number of children one can have in China. All these details and their importance - and a little amount of humour - are brought into light by the fact of a man getting an injury from a kick between the legs. Most importantly however, what the film shows is that no matter how little these people have, what they do have is something that they will allow no-one to take away from them – their pride, their dignity and their sense of justice.
With an almost documentary approach to filming the lives of Chinese peasants and their environment, Yimou achieves a realistic drama, without preachiness and with a superb sense of pacing. In what is a simple everyday situation, he even manages to convey an almost Kafkaesque undercurrent in the inhuman nature of how little people can get caught up in the ruthless and inexorable cogs of justice and bureaucracy. The consequences are all the more horrifying for the utter realism with which they are portrayed.
The Story of Qui Ju is released in the USA by Sony Pictures Classics. The DVD is in NTSC format and encoded for Region 1.
As far as capturing the tone of the film, Sony’s Region 1 DVD does a good job, with strong colours and a good sense of balance in brightness and contrast. The print is also in good condition with only a few dust spots here and there, but the image is a little on the soft side. On a single-layer disc however, the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer isn’t the most stable, with blocky compression artefacts frequently evident and some juddering movements in camera pans. When the camera is static however, the film looks exceptionally good.
Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the soundtrack is not particularly striking, but it certainly meets requirements and doesn’t seem to have any technical flaws. Both dialogue and the music score are fairly strong and clear.
Optional English subtitles are provided in the usual yellow font that Sony Pictures Classics use. It’s not so distracting here and translates the film well, capturing the tone and humour of certain situations well.
There are no extra features on the disc.
Don’t let the simplicity of the storyline or the documentary-like realism of the depiction of peasant life in rural China either put you off The Story of Qiu Ju or underestimate its achievement. Zhang Yimou’s film uses a simple story about simple ordinary people and gives it a treatment as powerful and dramatic as any courtroom drama. In the process, it depicts a whole range of human emotions in a variety of circumstances, realistically, but not without a sense of humour and absurdity - delving deeply into the darker side of human nature and making a strong political statement about the lives of simple people caught up in the machinery of justice and politics. With a magnificently restrained, yet competely appropriate sense of direction, and a world-class acting performance from Gong Li, The Story of Qiu Ju is nothing less than a masterpiece.