Gong Li, usually the example of exotic Chinese beauty, here plays the title character, a pregnant peasant woman. Li does not try to make herself look glamourous in poverty, as a Hollywood actress might; she is one of them, and the story is about simple peasants dealing with a not so simple legal system. Her husband has been injured; kicked in the groin, in fact, by the village chief, all over a land permit. The story details Qiu's frustration with the legal system as she attempts to extract justice from this event. At first, she tries appealing to the chief, without success. Then she takes it to the district official, whose decision is that the two should reconcile, and engage in "self-criticism," while the chief pays for medical costs. But she will not accept any of this - she wants an apology! So she appeals to the city officials, and then appeal after appeal, with the result always reaffirming the original verdict.
I do not know for sure if this film was banned in China, but it really wouldn't have been very surprising if it had, considering the impact of the overall story arc. Clearly, the movie critiques (if muted) the Chinese bureaucracy; if this were a non-Chinese movie, the story would be of little controversy, yet here it is certainly a bit of a threat. The movie doesn't portray the bureaucracy as something that can do no wrong, but it doesn't get portrayed as viciously corrupt, either. It's just woefully misguided enough that some strict government official may get a little miffed that the great Communist power has been shown to have a few chinks in its armour. The big issue is that the story portrays the legal system as something wholly alien to the majority of the country's citizens, that is, the peasants. Qiu Ju and the people around her only know the simple life, a world where everybody knows each other, and problems are solved within the community. So when she tries to get a proper apology out of the chief, she expects the legal system to reflect her own beliefs. But when she enters the big city, she finds out that is not the case. People there are professional, modern, and detached, and the legal system isn't much different.
She is very mystified and confused by the ways in which both the legal system and the people directly or indirectly involved behave. This leads to a couple of amusing scenes; one involves her confusion, during the appeal of the Public City Board's ruling, at the fact that the PCB chief represents the city, which is, of course, the party she makes the appeal against, when she herself knows that he is a good man who tried his best to help her out. The village chief is the only one who committed any wrongs so why should anybody else be on the stand? But both her lawyer and the PCB chief try to make her understand that this is the way the legal system works - even "good people" can sue each other! Another is when she goes to a letter writer, who says that he can write a good letter to the appeals commission for a certain fee, and that it is always better to write a mild letter rather than a strongly worded one. Qiu Ju asks why, but I won't spoil the punch line by giving the answer.
What is interesting is that the peasants are devoid of greed - if this were North America, of course, people such as Qiu Ju would probably ask for millions for pain and suffering, and would sue a restaurant for 100 million because of some spilt coffee. But, then again, God only has so many brains to go around while in the act of creation, and ran out before he got to us; this Chinese woman, however, looks for the ethical and reasonable response. What the chief did was wrong, especially considering that he is in a position of power, and he ought to apologise; as far as Qiu is concerned, by merely being told to pay up, the chief is avoiding his responsibility. How novel!
She is, in fact, a fairly stubborn person in her own right. There is some irony in the whole "self-criticism" verdict, since it really is she more than the husband who behaves like the bitter injured party. The husband heals, and is practically on speaking terms with the chief again (although I suppose this is pretty significant too, as it suggests that the husband is a weakling), but the wife keeps going and going and going. So, of course, something's got to give, and that happens during the surprise ending.
This is the second time I've seen this film, and it is certainly much
better now than it was the first time. The Story of Qiu Ju is one
of those slow, quiet films that you have to pay attention to. When I first
watched it, it didn't thrill me too much, but that is what youth does to
you. You get bored when things slow down to the pace of real life, when
you'd much rather watch some hyper-kinetic Hollywood picture. I'm a little
bit older now, so I enjoy it much more fully. This is not quite as great
as Raise the Red Lantern, but it comes close.
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