Unjust Desserts

The Story of Qiu Ju

a film by Zhang Jimou

Can there be any justice in today’s China? It is the deepest question that the film director Zhang Yimou has asked so far. His best-known earlier films, sexually supercharged, suffused with violence or the threat of it, always found some politically neutral ground by pretending to have nothing to do with the People’s Republic. Red Sorghum, etched a claustrophobic vision of the sexual politics of the past that only edged into recent times with some flickers of the 1930s, revealed episodically in details of dress and snatches of dialogue.

But in The Story of Qiu Ju we are inexorably in the present, in that curiously hybrid China of the late Deng Xiaoping years, where profound economic and social transformations coexist with rural isolation and continuing political repression. As the film’s leading character, Qiu Ju, enters the district town, the posters of Chairman Mao still gaze out serenely from the billboards, but they are now almost lost in a maze of colored pinup photos. Individual Chinese trudge along dusty roads or bike painfully, hauling heavy loads, but their silent endurance is constantly erased by the roar of buses and the honking of private cars. Though this is China’s once isolated northwest, fifteen hundred miles from the glossy Special Economic Zones of the Canton region, here too rows of high rises rear above the mean alleys, and plump Western tourist buttocks jiggle in leisure wear amid the slender Chinese legs, which are themselves set off by miniskirts or by boldly patterned tights.

Zhang Yimou has produced work of an extraordinarily high quality in a very short time. He was born in 1952 to parents who were considered of “bad” class background by the standards of the newly formed People’s Republic, since his father had been an officer in the Kuomintang Nationalist army; his mother was a dermatologist. Thus, at the age of seventeen, he was one of the many millions in the Cultural Revolution who were forced to undergo “reeducation”: he was sent first to work on a farm in his home province of Shaanxi, and then to a cotton mill. Here he developed a fascination with still photography; after many tribulations he was able to find a place in the Beijing Film Academy.

His first assignment upon graduation in 1982 was to the almost unknown Guangxi film studio in China’s poor rural south, but he was lucky enough to have been in the first group to complete their film studies after the Cultural Revolution, a class whose students had enormous enthusiasm and a great variety of interests. Because the school’s previous graduating class before the Cultural Revolution had been the fourth since the school’s …

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