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'Qiu Ju' Makes No Apologies : Political Satire Got Past Chinese Censors

March 09, 1995|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for the Times Orange County Edition.

Zhang Yimou has been making noise lately that almost seems tailored for the tabloids. Besides the Chinese government's refusal to show his newest movie, "To Live," in Zhang's homeland, there's that bit of gossip about the filmmaker's split with his beautiful leading lady, Gong Li.

This latter news is breathless stuff in China. Zhang and Gong have been companions for years--she's apparently been the director's muse as well as star of most of his influential movies.

The fact that she's apparently dumped him for another man has prompted even juicier speculation than his troubles with the censors.

Anyway, official problems are nothing new for Zhang. China's doctrinaires have thought many of his pictures a little too provocative, a little too politically incorrect. They feel that way about "To Live," and they felt that way with the earlier "Ju Dou" (1989) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991).

One film that supposedly did not annoy the captains of the Cultural Revolution is "The Story of Qiu Ju" (1992), which screens Friday night as the latest installment in UC Irvine's "Global Fishbowl" series.

Zhang's style is more relaxed, even slightly comic, and less sexy than in his other films, and that may have had something to do with the official approval.

Ironically, the story revolves around the notion that government bureaucracy, no matter how tiny, can be a petty pain. When the movie's heroine, Qiu Ju (Gong Li), seeks satisfaction for a family outrage, she butts up against one wall after another.

This is drama mixed with satire, richly photographed (a trademark of Zhang and his cinematographers Chi Xiao Lin and Yu Xiao Qun) and acted without indulgence. The lives of poor folk existing in an exotic world is presented with a craftsman's love of color and nuance.

An abusive act introduces us to that world. When the Village Head (Lei Lao Sheng), something of a minor-league mayor, kicks her husband (Liu Pei Qi) in the groin during a dispute, Qiu Ju demands an apology. He refuses, and her quest for justice begins.

From functionary to functionary, Qiu Ju argues her case, all to the embarrassment of both the husband, now laughed at by the other townspeople, and the Village Head, whose stubbornness is creating his own problems. Qiu Ju's resolve is based on self-respect, but it results in turmoil.

Even so, her determination--she travels far and wide, by foot, bike, cart and bus--to be satisfied is invigorating.

Amusing, too, because what motivates most of the opposition is the need to save face. Even though a quick "I'm sorry" could defuse the situation, nobody will do it because accepting any sort of blame makes them appear foolish.

Besides the film's technical skill, Gong's performance is an unusual one for her. The acting is evocative, but her appearance this time out goes against type. Zhang has emphasized her delicately erotic looks in other movies, but here she's more ordinary, more sturdy.

The camera makes a point of Qiu Ju's pregnancy and dwells on her exhaustive labors through a system that seems witlessly wary of any contrariness, no matter how trivial.

* What: Zhang Yimou's "The Story of Qiu Ju."

* When: Friday, March 10, at 7 and 9 p.m.

* Where: The UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road, and head south to Campus Drive, and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road, and take it into the campus.

* Wherewithal: $2 to $4.

* Where to call: (714) 824-5588.


Israel and the Holy Lands

(NR) In the sixth presentation in Orange Coast College's "Armchair Adventures," anthropologist, archeologist and filmmaker Dwayne L. Merry shows various aspects of Israel. From ancient towns to modern cities, Merry examines how this country deals with religious issues and changing times. Show time is Friday, March 10, at 7 p.m. at the Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. $7 in advance and $9 at the door. Senior citizens are eligible for a $1 discount. (714) 432-5880.


(NR) Based on Frank Norris' novel, it's the story of a mad dentist who kills his wife for money. Set in Death Valley, this 1925 film, though severely cut (originally seven hours), is still considered one of the great silent movies. It screens March 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. $5 for general admission, $3 for members, students and seniors. Part of the "Century of Cinema" series. (714) 759-1122.

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

(NR) Carmen Maura stars as a wife and mother dealing with the social nightmares of living in modern Madrid in this 1985 Pedro Almodovar movie. Using black humor, the movie examines, among other things, daily dealings with drug abuse, sadism and child prostitution. Will be shown at UC Irvine's Crystal Cove Theatre Auditorium on March 17 at 7 p.m. Part of UCI Film Society's "Global Fishbowl" series. $2 to $4. (714) 824-5588.

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