The venerable director of Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the first Chinese films ever nominated for Academy Awards (in spite of the fact that they have yet to be released in the country where they were shot), was sixteen years old when Mao and the Red Guard spearheaded the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The son of a doctor, Zhang was uprooted from school and remanded to work in the countryside for three years, first on a farm in the Shanxi province and later in a textile mill.
During the cultural upheaval, the Beijing Film Academy, the pre-eminent school for aspiring filmmakers in China, was closed, and although the Cultural Revolution was suspended in 1968, the Film Academy was not reopened for another decade. In 1978 nationwide entrance examinations were administered and Zhang passed easily, yet he was denied admission because, at age 27, he was five years too old. After a pair of unsuccessful trips to Beijing to attempt to reverse the decision, he pleaded with the director of the Ministry of Culture to grandfather him into the school because he had involuntarily wasted ten years as a laborer during the revolution. A few weeks later he was accepted.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the protagonist of Zhang's most recent film, The Story of Qiu Ju, is a tenacious farmer going up against the bureaucracy in a quixotic battle to do the right thing. What is surprising, however, is that the title character is a woman, thereby defying all the stereotypes of the submissive role of the female in modern Chinese society. Qiu Ju fights for justice with the quiet ferocity of a pit bull even as the men in her family try to persuade her to throw in the towel. Coming, as it does, from a country where daughters are commonly viewed as a liability, that's a wildly iconoclastic viewpoint.
The story line is about as simple as they come. Qiu is upset because the village chief of her rural town has kicked her husband in the family jewels during a fight over a perceived insult. She demands an act of contrition; the stubborn village leader refuses. The entire movie revolves around Qiu's efforts to obtain an apology, and the Chinese legal system's inability to deliver one.
Simple. The sociopolitical subtext, however, is where things get really interesting. Zhang's stance is that while the powers that be dispense their skewed version of justice, the individual must fight to get anything done. In the aftermath of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, that's the kind of statement that could shorten a Chinese filmmaker's career significantly and abruptly. It's a minor miracle that the Chinese government allowed a film with such a renegade spirit and strong pro-democracy bias to get made.
But minor miracles appear to be Zhang's stock in trade. That he has a film career at all is the first one; that his last three pictures have grown progressively more critical of the muddled, callous nature of Chinese communism is the second; the discovery of sublime actress Gong Li, who has appeared in all three of Zhang's most recent films, is the third.
Gong Li is that rare actress whose humbling command of her craft combined with Zhang's direction can elevate a simple story into the realm of fable. From farmer's wife to king's concubine, she inhabits roles with the haunting grace of a -- dare we say it? -- Mandarin Meryl Streep.
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While Gong is the putative star of The Story of Qiu Ju, equal billing should probably go to the memorable glimpses of rural peasant life captured by Zhang and cinematographers Chi Xiao Ling and Yu Xiao Qun. Like Close to Eden (the story of a vanishing way of life on the Mongolian steppes), much of the film's power is derived from the sheer freshness of its mise en scäne. From the primitive motorized buggies plying the roadways to the tricycle taxi drivers in the city who hustle country folk out of their hard-earned yuan, it's a chance to see an exotic corner of the world through the eyes of one who's lived there, without enduring the dryness of a nonfiction travelogue.
A word of caution for the short-attention-span crowd: this movie is slow. No one gets shot. There's no nudity. There are no chase scenes or spectacular car crashes. Hell, there isn't even a car for nearly half the film. And it's in Mandarin with English subtitles. Save your money for Jurassic Park or The Last Action Hero.
All you'll miss is a miracle.