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
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
* * *
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
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
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
* * *
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