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Comedy and Culture

Chinese audiences think The Story of Qiu Ju is a sparkling comedy. Western audiences think it's a plodding melodrama. What are we missing?

by Alan A. Stone

The actress Gong Li, of the People's Republic of China, is one of the most beautiful women in film today. Her beauty has not eclipsed her acting. Gong Li's oval face with its high cheekbones, wide spread eyes, and sensuous mouth is capable of expressing any human emotion. She managed to look like a different woman in each of the three splendid art films Jou Du, Raise the Red Lantern, and Red Sorghum in which she and her director Zhang Yimou have established their international reputation.

Zhang Yimou has also cast Gong Li in Operation Cougar, a Hong Kong style action thriller, aimed at a broader commercial market. Voluptuous in a tight-fitting nurse's uniform, Gong Li proved she could also be a sex symbol.

Zhang Yimou's most recent film, The Story of Qiu Ju, takes Gong Li in a different direction. She is cast in the role of a peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives with her husband's family in a rural village. Qiu Ju is heavy with her first pregnancy. Walking in short splayed steps, she tilts her ungainly body backward to balance the load. The story takes place in the winter months and her face is partially and unflatteringly covered with a scarf. An uneducated woman who is neither quick nor clever, she is slow to register what she sees and hears and her facial expressions occur in a delayed sequence. Gong Li's interpretation of the character allows the audience to anticipate her reaction as it gradually takes shape in her mind and then to watch her miraculous countenance reveal what she is experiencing. A telling instance occurs when she becomes separated from her sister-in-law in their travels to the unfamiliar crowded city. The camera watches as her face expresses in turn puzzlement, concern, anger, and then panic.

Gong Li has also given her character a mannerism in which she brings her hand to her mouth in an uncertain gesture that is brilliantly calculated to make her appear dull and vacant-eyed. All of this is wonderfully done but, as Zhang Yimou obviously recognizes, it does not entirely obscure the refined beauty of Gong Li's face, or the cinematic power of her radiant presence on the screen. Zhang Yimou knows that power full well. He discovered Gong Li when she was a sophomore in college and has made her the center of his films. The eloquent play of emotions across her face tells his stories. Together the director and the actress are a team of film artists of the highest rank.

In the opinion of most American critics, however, The Story of Qiu Ju, is not one of their best efforts. It meanders along and, according to the critics, fails to achieve the mesmerizing effect of their three earlier films. Jou Du, Red Sorghum, and Raise the Red Lantern explored themes of passion and tragedy. Gong Li's terrifying vulnerability kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Qiu Ju, by comparison, seems to be a shaggy dog story with an unhappy ending.

Chinese moviegoers have a totally different impression. They describe The Story of Qiu Ju as a comedy.

If the Chinese are right and how can they be wrong? then Occidental film goers are missing the point. (None of the Occidentals were laughing at the Brattle theater where I saw it.) Our "round-eyes" are deceiving us. Rather than pretending I got the joke which would be false and uninteresting let me describe my astigmatic experience.

* * *

The tragically beautiful Gong Li is an unlikely comic actress. And there is nothing very funny about an obviously pregnant woman hiking across the wintry countryside, precariously perched behind her sister-in-law on the back of a bicycle, and hitching rides on a bumpy farm tractor. Of course humor is apt to suffer in cultural translation. We are told that Kafka and his friends rolled on the floor with laughter when he read his stories aloud to them. I still find it impossible to laugh at most of Kafka, and difficult to imagine people laughing at Gong Li.

Qiu Ju, like the peasant in Kafka's famous parable, is seeking justice: neither of them finds it. Qiu Ju's search begins because her husband has gotten into a heated argument with the chief of the village. When he questioned the chief's virility, the husband was badly beaten and kicked in the groin. The film opens with the pregnant Qiu Ju and her obliging sister-in-law pulling a cart. They will make many nearly identical journeys together in the course of the film, setting out like Don Qiuxote and Sancho Panza on a quest for honor. The shorter sister-in-law always does what the regal Qiu Ju tells her to do. She is the one pulling the cart which contains the husband who is too crippled by pain to walk. They have taken him to the doctor for an examination.

All this could be very funny but Qiu Ju seems concerned that the blow to her husband's groin has done permanent damage. The film is set in contemporary China, where zero-population growth has been the government's highest priority. Couples are allowed to have only one child and they desperately want it to be a boy. The chief of their village has been a flagrant transgressor of the one child rule. He has fathered four children but all are daughters. This was the basis for the insult to the chief's manhood: he is only capable of making hens. If Qiu Ju's husband is permanently incapacitated by the kick in the groin, then her current pregnancy will be the couple's only chance for a son and it may be the end of their conjugal relations. But when the doctor renders a benign prognosis and a simple remedy (keep it straight and let the air get at it) Qiu Ju is less comforted than one might have expected. Her honor has been offended and she takes her grievance to the legal system for a remedy.

But Qiu Ju wants human justice, not simply legal justice. Her pride requires that the offending chief acknowledge that what he did was wrong and make some appropriate gesture of apology. The chief, however, will do only what legal justice requires. At the local level of legal mediation a decision is reached that the chief must pay monetary damages to Qiu Ju's husband, an amount equivalent to his medical expenses and lost wages. Entirely reasonable by legal standards, this solution is totally flawed in Qiu Ju's thinking the chief is not ordered to apologize. Instead he triumphantly summons Qiu Ju to his home, counts out the money, and throws it on the ground. Qiu Ju refuses to humble herself by bending before him. She leaves even more determined in her resolve to obtain justice.

Although the chief can be seen as an evil patriarchal figure, Zhang Yimou surrounds him with a smiling wife and daughters who seem so happy and treat Qiu Ju with such affectionate courtesy that it is difficult to believe that the head of their household is a terrible man. And there is something of the Chinese theme of face-saving in the chief's stubbornness. As the village father-figure he does not want to lose face both out of pride and to preserve his authority. Later we shall even discover that he is a man who deserves his position.

Qiu Ju, like Zhang Yimou's other heroines, has been construed as a feminist, but her prolonged obduracy seems to have less and less real justification. She shows little concern about the consequences of what she is doing for her husband and his family or about the embarrassing rift she is causing in the tightly knit village community. That Qiu Ju has made this quest her own, and not her husband's, is made undeniably clear when he eventually objects to her travels in a tirade of verbal abuse. Qiu Ju ignores her husband as does Zhang Yimou, who has allowed this unappealing man only a minor role in the story.

The husband certainly is no match for the determined Qiu Ju. She appropriates much of his family's precious pepper crop to pay for her travels and commandeers her sister-in-law's service as her companion. But we are given no convincing sense of her personal motives. Zhang Yimou keeps his camera at a distance from that wonderful face and when we do catch glimpses of it she has the same stolid expression. Qiu Ju simply goes on demanding that the chief be made to apologize. Is she the small persistent voice of conscience or the foolish voice of vain pride?

Gong Li's two dimensional character begins to seem unrealistic or even absurd to an audience who does not understand Zhang Yimou's comic intent. We simply have no idea why a woman in her pregnant condition would put herself through this grueling ordeal. She certainly is not presented as an angry litigious person. Never once in the course of this film does she lose her temper either at the chief or at her legal setbacks. Plausible psychological motives can always be manufactured but Zhang Yimou gives little help. He has shown almost no interest in exploring the depths of individual psychology in any of his films. This time, however, the director did not expect his audience to understand or to empathize with Qiu Ju but to laugh at her.

The camera follows an unyielding Qiu Ju as she travels to the district and then to the city. The film at times loses contact with her and takes on the quality of a saccharine travelogue of contemporary China. With one nasty exception, everyone she meets is so kind to the guileless countrified Qiu Ju that it begins to strain credibility. No one ever openly questions the importance of her claim. She is helped by every official to press her complaint at the highest level. They treat her like a princess, not a peasant. When unable to help her reach an acceptable solution through mediation, the ever attentive and considerate legal authorities urge Qiu Ju to go over their heads and litigate in court. Qiu Ju is appreciative of their courtesy and concerned about offending them. But they insist that there is no offense to them in her assertion of her legal rights. She is provided with an excellent lawyer, who also treats her with the utmost consideration and argues her case before a tribunal. A Chinese audience may find this all so preposterous that they are rolling in the aisles. But to us, it seems sad when the court finds against Qiu Ju and she goes home in defeat.

If this part of the story unrealistically idealizes the kindness and integrity of the legal authorities it also unrealistically demeans their wisdom as mediators. Chinese mediation, under the communist regime, begins with the demand that both parties engage in political self criticism. Pride and selfishness are bourgeois vices; humility and generosity are communist virtues. Although Qiu Ju is told, as a kind of aside at the outset, that she needs to do some political self criticism, neither she nor the chief make any such effort. Nor does the film ever show the mediator bringing both parties together in the same room and using group pressure to reconcile them. Since all this is elementary and basic in Chinese mediation, one must conclude (even if one does not get the joke) that Zhang Yimou had no interest in painting a realistic picture of the Chinese communist legal system. Given the delays that are typical of the courts, the fact that Qiu Ju could move through three levels of mediation and then litigate in one trimester of pregnancy is certainly not plausible. Just as Qiu Ju is not a real person so the officials she meets are equally unreal. There are just too many other implausible details to be explained away. The conclusion is inescapable that the Chinese are correct and that all of this is part of the director's design!

* * *

With Qiu Ju's final defeat in the court, Zhang Yimou's winding plot picks up steam and moves to its denouement. Qiu Ju goes into labor late one night and cannot deliver her baby; she is hemorrhaging and the lives of both mother and baby are in danger. Her desperate husband goes to the chief of the village who has had so much grief as a result of Qiu Ju's persistent complaint. We expect the worst, but the chief recognizes his duty and foregos his grudge. He rounds up a group of men. Slipping and sliding up and down the snowy hills, they carry her to the hospital where Qiu Ju gives birth to a precious son. We are meant to believe that the chief has saved their lives and Qiu Ju is now beholden to him. She can no longer require his apology.

It is a month later and most of the village is at Qiu Ju's home to celebrate with her the birth of her precious male child. Qiu Ju has now found respected status in the community. She insists that everyone must wait for their honored guest, the chief, who has been delayed. Then someone arrives and announces that the police have come to arrest the chief and take him away to prison. The x-rays from the initial visit to the doctor have finally been inspected and they show that when the chief beat her husband he broke a rib. That injury, unlike the one caused by the kick in the groin, constitutes a criminal assault. Presumably because of Qiu Ju's relentlessness the dutiful legal authorities have now pressed the criminal charge.

Zhang Yimou finally turns to what he does best. He focuses the camera on Gong Li and lets her face tell the story as she registers her reactions. When Qiu Ju learns what has happened, she leaves her party and goes running across the hills toward the chief's house. She is desperate to stop this now unwanted punishment. We hear the familiar sounds of a police siren retreating in the distance. No longer pregnant or covered with a shawl, we can watch Qiu Ju's face as she recognizes with horror that the police have already taken the chief and left. We anticipate the anguished look on her face as she realizes how badly it has all turned out. The chief who saved her life will now be punished, and she will be a pariah in the village. She will never be able to apologize adequately for what she has brought to pass. Seeking honor, she has brought upon herself lasting dishonor. Zhang Yimou freezes that frame of Gong Li's face, as it eloquently tells the moral of Qiu Ju's story. But this moment of eloquence is too little and comes too late for an Occidental audience.

* * *

It is mind-blowing to discover how differently this film is experienced by Chinese audiences. What we find implausible and confusing, they find preposterous and amusing. While we are trying to comprehend Qiu Ju's motives, they are laughing at her foolishness. When we find the film slow moving, they have time to laugh. The ending, which is too little and too late for us, is for them a bittersweet conclusion that gives the comedy a pungent finish. The failure of many of the best known American film critics to find much humor in The Story of Qiu Ju shows once more how culture-bound the canons of film criticism and appreciation are, even among a self-consciously cosmopolitan elite.

Qiu Ju, like Zhang Yimou's other films, was made in the repressive political atmosphere of mainland China. Western critics have found in these films Delphic references to contemporary political matters and veiled criticisms of the regime and its censorship of free expression. They discover in these movies the spirit of Tiananmen Square. Jonathan Spence, an eminent Sinologist, reviewed The Story of Qiu Ju from that perspective. He noted some of the implausible details and unlike most critics recognized the humorous intent. But for him the depiction of communist bureaucrats as unfailingly prompt, honest, and polite at every level stood out like a sore thumb. He could not decide whether this unrealistic depiction by Zhang Yimou was intended to curry favor with the Chinese authorities or was part of the joke. He reports that after the censors reviewed The Story of Qiu Ju, they were so pleased that they decided to release it along with two of the earlier films which until then had been suppressed in China.

Spence apparently thinks that the censors were duped by the absurd depiction of their fellow bureaucrats because he believes that the film asks the "deepest question" about the communist regime that Zhang Yimou has asked so far, "Can there be any justice in today's China?" Spence concludes that The Story of Qiu Ju is an important film and sees the spark of political protest growing in it.

I do not question Professor Spence's knowledge of modern China and its history. I think, however, that he has misunderstood Zhang Yimou's aesthetic ambitions and that his political interpretation fails to take adequate account of the overall significance of the many other implausible details in this film which make everyone in the film, including Qiu Ju, laughable to the Chinese. Those fanciful details which are absurd enough to make The Story of Qiu Ju a comic send up are threads in the fabric Zhang Yimou has woven in all of his best movies. These films are not made either in the school of realism or in the tradition of veiled political protest. The films of Gong Li and Zhang Yimou belong to the magic genre of fables a genre in which fantastic things happen. It is quite possible to believe that the suspicious Chinese censors watching Qiu Ju finally got the point that none of these films are aimed at the regime. They are fables that reveal the universal in human nature, not the particular.

The Story of Qiu Ju is set in contemporary China and perhaps for that very reason its unrealistic details are confusing to moviegoers here. But the three earlier films set in the past cast a magic spell and had the timeless quality of myths or fables. Some of Bergman's work has the same archetypal quality as though we must have heard this story 'round the campfire in an earlier life. Zhang Yimou's best films were fabulous, and the implausible details added to the intensity of the viewers' experience rather than confusing them. Those films put exotic visual images on the screen which appeared and reappeared like a refrain. The ritualized images were mysteriously difficult to forget.

It would be impossible to create a film that had no relation to the artist's world, but the work of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li is not about the real People's Republic of China. It is a portrait of an archetypal China, a land of fables. Qiu Ju is not a particular casualty of the communist regime; she is the universal victim (whether comic or tragic) of any legal system of justice.

* * *

Watching The Story of Qiu Ju without getting the joke produces one interesting result. We see more clearly the artifice and directorial device that went into Zhang Yimou's successful films. Because they were financed and produced with an expectation of international distribution, the director faced the daunting prospect of dubbing or subtitles. Zhang Yimou brilliantly made a virtue of avoiding that necessity. The fable is the perfect vehicle for such an enterprise. The camera's almost constant focus on Gong Li's miraculous countenance, the simple plot line, and the creation of sustained moods are all directorial strategies that make dialogue superfluous. One is reminded of the great silent films which were immediately accessible to audiences around the world.

Zhang Yimou's cinematography is also spectacular in its self-conscious painterly sophistication. He began as a still photographer and he seems to shoot every scene as a still photograph, aware of the artistic composition and the colors he is filming. Jou Du was set in a dye factory where huge bolts of cloth would unroll at dramatic moments in splashes of intense primary colors. He fills the screen with reds which make for a powerful visual impact. The huge red lanterns raised in the film of that name, the "Red" in Red Sorghum, and the many landscapes reddened by the setting sun provide just a few examples. The masterful and self-conscious use of color signals that what we are watching is the most ambitious cinematographic art not gritty social realism. Exotic settings and powerful architectural images reinforce the feeling that we are watching some archetypal tale unfold. Every aspect of Zhang Yimou's visual artistry and Gong Li's acting and beauty worked in synchrony in these three fabulous films. The films were filled with psychological tension as the Gong Li character was thrust into a minefield of sex and violence.

But as in Qiu Ju, Zhang Yimou's films all require Gong Li to play the role of the childlike ingenue who does not understand the ways of the world. She is never the sophisticated woman who presents a mask of artificial or nuanced social gestures to dissemble her true feelings. Zhang Yimou's camera captures the vulnerability of the transparent human being who has yet to learn the world-weary lessons of deceit. It is Gong Li's guileless and captivating persona on the screen that gives poignancy to these stories of her encounters with the corrupting world.

Gong Li's characters have not only been innocent but, like Qiu Ju, strangely out of place. Her characters have no past; they do not belong; they are like angels who have lived in heaven and fallen to earth. Gong Li's radiant presence on the screen is so psychologically compelling that not until Qiu Ju did I recognize that she never plays the part of a real person. As an actress she has never had to plumb the depths of her character. She is there primarily to register her reactions and she does that brilliantly.

It is extraordinary to think that The Story of Qiu Ju, when seen and understood as a comedy, may demonstrate to the Chinese that Zhang Yimou and Gong Li are a national treasure. Gong Li may have proved her acting range to them by going from comic buffoon to tragic figure in one film. Zhang Yimou may have demonstrated that he can make nearly a billion people laugh as well as weep. This proves once again that the peoples of the world have less in common when the subject is comedy than when the subject is sex, violence, and tragedy. And as for Occidental movie critics like myself who are ready to render a verdict, there seems to be another lesson: the joke is on us.

Originally published in the September/ October 1993 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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