Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)

Chinese title: Qiu Ju Fights Legal Battle.

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)
This is a typical art-house film from China. I don't like the term 'art-house' because it's too loaded. the word 'art' is too loaded. And the term 'art-house films' is more loaded than Warren Buffet and Bill Gates combined.

I prefer the term 'social drama'. At least all these 'art-house' films in my list that made in China could be more accurately described as social dramas. I.e. movies that make social commentary or address social issues as the main goal, and it's executed with the technique of social realism. In other words, they look more like documentary than commercial genre movies. Situations are real, backdrops are real, and actors in some cases are real people playing themselves. Indeed many street scenes in this movie were filmed with hidden cameras.

Because of this realism and the intention of the directors, the story of these 'art-house' films are secondary to the message or social commentary. Having said that, a great director like Zhang Yimou never let his social commentary gets in the way. In fact, he's so good as a story teller that some audience don't even aware that there's a message.

Because of the technique of documentary realism, much of the movie are showing the real China with no embellishment. Of course, honesty is the very key of social drama.

For example, a street scene showing a REAL street stand selling posters. In the old days (in the Mao Era), the only posters they sold (and only did it in a state shop) would likely be pictures of Chairman Mao in various situations, and maybe other CCP founders like Zhou Enlai, etc. In this stand, there was only 1 photo of Chairman Mao, who was swamped among pictures of various Chinese religious iconography from the Eight Immortals, The god of Longevity, Door gods and a pantheon of deities. As the camera pans, posters of many Hollywood celebs including Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator mingled hazard with other HK stars and superstar like Chow Yun-Fat, as well as sexually provocative photos of white models couple. This shows the encroachment of the outside world into a rural town. How you look at this outside influence is up to you. This is the key of art-house/social drama, the director supplies the scene, you do the interpretation.

You can say this outside influence is bad, bringing Western decadent values of material pursuit of fame, and wealth as captured by the celebrities, and sleaziness that pollute the mind of the villagers. You could also see it as expressions of freedom. Freedom of religion. Mao discouraged all forms of religious worships. Temples and churches were closed down. And freedom of expressions embodied by the sleazy photos (I see Larry Flynt is nodding his head in his wheelchair). Freedom from what a single person - Emperor Mao - could dictate what the citizens of the most populous country on earth should believe in (good or bad, right or wrong). He even acted as a fashion model for fashion trend of Dr. Sun's suits (we call it Mao suits because he popularised it). Your call.

One thing is certain, if Mao is still alive, this movie will never get made. This most important expression of freedom is NOT shown by the camera. It's implied.

So who's the market for that solo poster of Mao? It's for the old cadres who are nostalgic to an old time that they could still understand. And to them this photo of Mao is a straw they could grasp onto in a turbulent river of social change. The photo of Mao is but an illusion of safety. Save yourself by swimming to the other side of the riverbank to join the new world. Abandon the photo! Swim, old cadres, swim!!!

The 5-sec scene of the REAL street posters stand has nothing to do with the story, but it provides the social context in which the story takes place, and it delivers the maximum social commentary in the minimal effort. This is social drama at its finest.

The image of the glamorous Gong Li who transformed herself into a frumpy, awkward pregnant country folk Qiu Ju ('autumn chrysanthemum') always put a smile on my face. Love it.

P.S. Read Ermo (1994) for interesting omparisons.

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