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The Story of Qiu Ju

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

Revenge of the hayseeds! This is some relentless main character. To the film’s great credit that quality is both cause for celebration, and the cause of a terrible injustice. Chinese officialdom comes off very well—the regime liked this one, didn’t they? But we might also notice that its responsiveness, the way that it so courteously attends to this obscure oaf of a woman, is the root of the problem. There must be laws, there must be processes, the latter turn slowly, and the former will crush you! This goes beyond ideology, or the party in power. Systems have shortcomings, as do the individuals they serve. The consequences are kind of comic, and sometimes tragic. Like this film, which manages to operate very effectively in both registers. How many movies can really make this claim?

It’s almost alchemical how Zhang negotiates these subtle moral gradations. He does it through the patient accumulation of little anthropological and psychological details. We really get the texture and the timing of these peasants’ lives, and all the little abounding grace notes reveal the infinity beneath the seeming simplicity. (Agricultural production in the margins, the beautifully rendered town mouse/country mouse dynamic, the communal, cross-family feelings in the village, central conflict notwithstanding.) He also does it through a strategy of relentless repetition—the script is the character. It’s boring if you want, but it’s also the world turning, a wide, sufficient rhythm that puts a lot of our strivings in a ridiculous light. And finally, he does it by being simultaneously kind toward and critical of these characters. Qiu Ju’s best quality is her worst one, and the brave, self-sacrificing village leader is a stubborn, pride-ridden chauvinist. We should just say sorry …