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,1 set in the banditravaged northeast of China during the warlord period of the 1920s, reached its hellish climax with the Japanese invasion of World War II; Ju Dou was placed in a time of unspecified “feudal exploitation” where poverty and passion precluded politics; Raise the Red Lantern2 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 founding, Zhang and his fellow-graduates were termed the “Fifth Generation,” a term now synonymous with bold visual imagination and creative originality. During 1984 and 1985 in Guangxi, he worked as cinematographer on two films, Yellow Earth and Big Parade, with another young “Fifth Generation” talent, the director Chen Kaige. After he was transferred back to the Xi’an film studios in his native Shaanxi, Zhang Yimou’s career as a director was fostered by the greatest of the “Fourth Generation” directors, Wu Tianming, who made the once intellectually moribund Xi’an studio into a center of innovation.3
In all his major films, Zhang Yimou’s main star is Gong Li, whom he selected in auditions for Red Sorghum when she was a college sophomore, and who has been with him ever since as collaborator and personal companion. The past, for Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, seems rendered close to parody in The Story of Qiu Ju by the restless motion of the modern world. The lack of amenities in Qiu Ju’s home village in rural Shaanxi are merely quaint instead of being proof of exploitation. People talk about being hungry, but the eaves of their houses are festooned with clusters of dried maize and huge loops of chili peppers, and bowls of steaming noodles are present for every visitor. Though Qiu Ju, a pregnant woman near her term, is constantly setting off on foot across a snowy landscape with a cautious gait and back arched to bear the baby’s weight, she nearly always has a ride by the next frame, on a motorized farm wagon or a beat-up truck. There is poverty, yes, but it is a poverty of sharing.
Only in the figure of the village “Chief,” the appointed Communist Party boss who runs life in Qiu Ju’s village, do the sexual menace and constant sense of imminent violence that have been Zhang Yimou’s trademark make themselves felt. Powerfully built, middle-aged, father of four, rich by the standards of the village, abusive, restless, with a harsh laugh and quiet but deadly voice, this “Chief Wang” has kicked Qiu Ju’s husband so savagely in the balls that the husband’s chance of spawning more children may be forever finished. We do not see that kick, but it is proof of Zhang Yimou’s power as a director that we can feel it throughout the film.
The film opens with the dense crowds that fill any market town in China slowly moving about as we focus on the doubled-up body of Qiu Ju’s husband lying under a blanket on a two-wheeled farm wagon, pulled not by a mule but by a young country woman, whom we soon learn is the maimed husband’s sister. She and her pregnant sister-in-law wait patiently outside, glancing nervously through the window, as the doctor they have walked so far to see—“He looks more like a vet,” the two women agree—peers thoughtfully at his patient’s private parts and suggests helpful remedies.
Being kicked in the balls is probably the world’s oldest and most enduring joke, except to those being kicked. Zhang Yimou fuses the comic sides and the overtones of pain and tragedy so artfully that we never quite know what to think. We are not allowed to get to know the kicked husband, except to learn that, in a rash moment after Chief Wang had knocked down his illegally constructed shed for drying chili peppers, he had sneered at the Chief for “raising only hens,” in obvious reference to the fact that Chief Wang had four daughters but no son. The unborn child in the belly of Qiu Ju, therefore, will either vindicate her husband’s sassiness by being a boy, or underline the irony if she is a girl—for girls are all the more unwanted in a China where the government is trying to enforce a singlechild policy. It is this policy that Chief Wang has so obviously violated with his four attempts to sire a boy.
But “I am the law,” says the Chief, when Qiu Ju remonstrates with him on behalf of her anguished husband. And “He’s the Chief,” the local police reply, when she goes to their noisy, cluttered office to lodge a formal complaint. “At least say some kind words,” the higher authorities finally tell the Chief. “What words?” he answers, with chilling simplicity.
The Story of Qiu Ju is structured around the attempts of Qiu Ju to break out of this self-defining circle of denial. She wants only one thing, to have Chief Wang apologize, or to have someone above Chief Wang in the hierarchy tell him that he was wrong. Men, especially men in authority, should not kick other men in the balls, especially when the wives of those men are pregnant with their first child but have not yet seen it safely born. It is the very simplicity of this premise that makes the film comic; it is the moral precision of the premise that gives the film its urgency.
As Qiu Ju, the illiterate farm woman, slowly advances up the official hierarchy in search of a sympathetic hearing, moving ever further away from her sheltering village, spending ever more money on transport, she exasperates almost everybody, even, at last, her husband. “All right, go,” he shouts, as she sets off once more with yet another load of chili peppers to sell for bus money, “and don’t come back.” “Bitch,” says Chief Wang, “vengeful bitch.” “If you get one more kick in the family jewels,” a neighbor cheerfully calls to the husband, “Qiu Ju will go all the way to Beijing.”
“How strongly worded should I make the complaint?” asks the professional letter-writer in the district town, as Qiu Ju prepares to reach even higher into the bureaucracy. “Would you like the complaint to be reasonable or merciless?” What would be the result if he wrote a “merciless” complaint, she timidly asks. Oh, he replies offhandedly, he’s only written seven of those in his life. And what happened? she pushes him. “Two were shot,” is the deadpan reply, “and five got life imprisonment.” Qiu Ju is horrified. She doesn’t want Chief Wang to be shot. She just wants the world to be fair. So she quietly pays her money for the “reasonable” complaint, which is subsequently read thoughtfully and carefully by the officials in the public Security Bureau.
This brings us to what is for me the film’s major false note, Zhang Yimou’s presentation of the law enforcers and bureau personnel who one by one, in ascending levels of seniority, listen to Qiu Ju’s litany. These men—for they are all men—are presented without exception as being courteous and kindly, ever receptive to a simple peasant woman’s right to complain. They are clean and neat and gentle. They never take bribes or even accept presents. They lend Qiu Ju their cars. Even when they can do nothing, they do it swiftly. Surely to most Chinese in the PRC, and to any Westerners who have had business there, this presentation appears absurd, a mocking echo of all those legions of selfless “model cadres” who have filled Communist plays, films, and fiction since the 1930s. In this film there is not a single selfish official—except for Chief Wang himself, and even he is redeemed at last by grace—to set off against the sugary state. I left the film unsure whether this group portrayal was “part of the joke” to Zhang Yimou, intended to be seen through at once, or whether it was a peace offering to the powers-that-be in order to be left alone to pursue more important matters.4
In any case, the official hierarchy’s receptivity, along with its hesitancies, are what gives the film its forward motion, and gives Qiu Ju a structure for her quest. Gong Li, the actress who has played the lead in all Zhang Yimou’s major films, is wonderful as Qiu Ju, but the force of her part is immeasurably enhanced by the constant presence at her side of her short, round-faced, young sister-in-law, who plods around China with her, never complaining, accepting everything that fate, the cities, and the authorities can pile on them. Dressed in freshly bought “city clothes” that only accentuate their hopelessly “country” ways, the two women accept, but also evade, our smiles of derision. For their quest is the most important one there is. Something wrong has been done. Something unfair. There need not be financial redress—that is not necessary, and when proffered, rejected—but there must be an apology. Then the world can get back to its regular business.
Why will no one apologize? The answer is as complex as the layers of this film. Partly, Zhang suggests, it lies with the nature of the Chinese judicial system, which will bend itself constantly out of shape to protect any of its underlings, despite its disclaimers to the contrary. Part of the answer lies in the resolute male refusal to lose face to a woman in any circumstances. But above all, I think Zhang Yimou is saying, it is because not enough people, of any rank or gender, really care about fairness any more. Qiu Ju’s heavy-footed, solemn, unglamorous quest is doomed to float forever on a sea of colossal indifference. When the state does at last respond, it is because of a technicality: X-rays show that Chief Wang had also cracked one of the husband’s ribs. Though the rib has mended, along with the balls—this is a happy story physiologically—the fact that it had been cracked makes Chief Wang guilty of assault. He is accordingly sentenced to three weeks detention at the county center, and taken away from his village in a police car, sirens howling.
But as Qiu Ju’s frozen face at the end of the film tells us, that was not the point at all. It is not just that the Chief will be back in only three short weeks, free to pursue plans of revenge if he so chooses, though that eventuality surely gives us and Qiu Ju pause. Far more importantly, rib-cracking was not the crime, and the punishment is therefore without significance. The true crime was one of callousness against human dignity, and for that no one has any redress. Qiu Ju thus becomes, at the end, that boldest and oldest of human pariahs, the one who shouts the truth that no one wishes to hear. This is the first film I have seen from China that has at once such documentary verisimilitude, such comic inventiveness, and such reflective strength. It is hard not to see this as a hopeful sign for the future despite the film’s message, and to see in Zhang Yimou a proof that true talent will break through the most restrictive and dispiriting barriers to find its moment in the light.
June 24, 1993
The novel Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang jiazu) by Mo Yan, from which Zhang Yimou took his screenplay, has just been published by Viking-Penguin in a translation by Howard Goldblatt. The translator points out in his preface that his version is taken from the uncut novel as it was published in Taiwan in 1988, since the PRC publishers—none other than the People’s Liberation Army—had cut the novel in their own 1987 edition. ↩
This film is based on the novella originally titled Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. That novella and two others by Su Tong are to be published shortly in a translation by Michael Duke for Morrow, under the title Raise the Red Lantern. As Michael Duke points out in his translator’s note, the Red Lanterns do not in fact appear in Su Tong’s original novella—they were one of several additions made by Zhang Yimou or his scriptwriters. ↩
A useful collection on the current film scene in the PRC is Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, edited by Chris Berry (British Film Institute, 1991; distributed by Indiana University Press). This contains brief biographies of Zhang and the other directors mentioned here, as well as essays on the films Red Sorghum and Yellow Earth. A valuable background study is Paul Clark’s Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). A joint interview with Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige was printed in George Stephen Semsel’s Chinese Film: The State of the Art in the People’s Republic (Praeger, 1987). A remarkably comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography of studies on the cinema in the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong is included in Modern Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, edited by Nick Browne, Paul Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (late fall 1993). ↩
I understand from someone who knows the Chinese film industry well that since the general release in China of The Story of Qiu Ju, both Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, previously mainly restricted to overseas distribution, have now been cleared for general release inside China by the authorities. ↩