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During a dispute, village Chief Wang Shangtang assaulted Wan Qinglai, which included kicking him in the groin. So, his pregnant wife, Qiu Ju, and his sister, Meizi, put him on a cart and take him all the way to town to see a…man who calls himself a doctor. This so-called doctor writes down his diagnosis and instructions, which is basically that Qinglai needs to rest.
Back at the village, Qiu Ju goes to the Chief Wang’s house, shows him the doctor’s note, and demands to know what is to be done about this. Chief Wang seems utterly uninterested in the matter, saying only that Qinglai can come kick him in the groin to make this even. A frustrated Qiu Ju decides that she has to take this matter to Wang’s superiors. So she and Meizi head off to the…Village, which actually looks more like a town.
Qiu Ju meets with Officer Li and lays out the backstory. Qinglai and Qiu Ju wanted to build a storage shed for the chilies that they grew, and even acquired the materials for it. Chief Wang kept neglecting to give approval for it and then outright refused permission when they tried to build it on their allotted land, saying that that was against the law. Qinglai demanded to know which law that was and Chief Wang said that he was the law. An angered Qinglai made a comment that Chief Wang (probably rightly) interpreted as an insult regarding the fact that he has four daughters and no male heir. Enraged at such a verbal attack on both his authority and his manhood, Chief Wang physically attacked Qinglai’s manhood. And here we are.
Officer Li notes that, actually, there was a law against building on allotted land. Qiu Ju counters that there was no law allowing the Chief to attack her husband, especially not where it counts. She demands that Chief Wang apologize for his actions. While Officer Li says that the doctor’s diagnosis did not conclude that Qinglai suffered any big injury, he does agree that Chief Wang was wrong to respond with violence. He decides to go to Qiu Ju’s village and talk to Chief Wang.
It is agreed that Chief Wang is to pay for Qinglai’s medical bills as well as whatever wages were lost from his not being able to work. This comes out to two hundred yuan. After Officer Li leaves, Chief Wang and Qiu Ju seem about to work things out. Chief Wang takes out two hundred yuan, but throws the money on the ground when Qiu Ju tries to take it. Chief Wang states that he is paying only for the benefit of Officer Li, and wants Qiu Ju to bow as she picks up the money. Seeing that the Chief is completely unapologetic, a furious Qiu Ju refuses to take the money and leaves. Suspecting that Officer Li has been going easy on the Chief, she decides to expand her quest for justice. To her, this is not about money: this is about the dignity of her and her husband. Qiu Ju demands an apology from the Chief and she will go up the ladder of the Chinese Communist Party if that is what it takes.
With the premise of a movie having its foundation be a guy getting kicked in the testicles, it would have been easy to make this a rather slapstick comedy with all sorts of local yokel-based hijinks. The tagline on that poster calling this a â€œrevenge comedyâ€ does not help matters. This is not that kind of movie. This is a rather slow-moving and understated drama about a woman trying to go through the proper legal channels to get an apology. For sure, there are plenty of funny moments, but it is rather low-key. The humor comes not really from the kick to the groin, which we never see, but the most mundane epic fairytale of a shaggy dog story that grows out of it. The constantÂ maneuvering between Qiu Ju and the Chief, the sheer amount of bureaucracy that Qiu Ju has to deal with as she travels further and further from her home, the various characters and situations that she forces herself to put up with in the hopes of getting justice, the way that she cannot hide just how in over her head she is, and the presence of her quietly goofy sister-in-law. There is one part of the movie where she is advised to consult a letter writer in order to better state her case to the authorities. The letter writer pumps up his own credentials to her and says that he could either write a level-headed letter that is cheaper and allows the target of the complaint some way to get out or he could write a mean letter that is more expensive and could possibly result in her getting imprisoned. Of course, she chooses the the milder option, but the resulting letter is still extremely insulting. They payoff is hilarious, even moreso, since its effectiveness in convincing the authorities of her case is dubious.
Of course, this movie is not all laughs and there are some serious subjects that it brings up. The first one comes up immediately, as the movie opens with a 105-second shot of a crowed street, with Qiu Ju, Meizi, and Qinglai gradually making their way towards the foreground. It is pretty obvious, even before it is stated outright, that Qiu Ju is just one person of many, relatively unimportant to the larger society. While her quest for family justice means a lot to her, the authorities whom she turns to have to deal with hundreds and hundreds of other cases each day, and her persistence makes her an amusement at best and an irritant at worst.
It is heavily implied that Qiu Ju does not want to do this. She is nervous around strangers and in strange places. As she travels further from her village, she sees how far China has passed beyond her way of life and she has trouble processing things. She is actually rather soft spoken and not one for speechifying unless it she believes it to be absolutely necessary. She is also fairly passive and avoids confrontation, even when she suspects that some predatory city-person is ripping her off. She does not want to do this, but she is compelled to do it. Compelled not by anyone else, but by her own sense of dignity and pride.
At stake in this struggle between Wang and the Wans are pride and gendered values. A son is valued more than a daughter is in Chinese society. That Chief Wang has four daughters suggests that he has tried to have a son and has repeatedly failed. This is a source of embarrassment that Qinglai exploited during the dispute over the storage shed. Qinglai challenged Chief Wang’s power as leader of the village and his value as a man. So, Wang hit Qinglai in his manly pride and rendered him unable to work. By compromising Qinglai’s ability to father children, he compromised Qiu Ju’s ability to bear more children (side note, the movie makes a passing reference to the One Child Policy that suggests that it does not quite apply to these villagers and, given the recent revelation about director Zhang Yimou, it may be that he believes that the policy does not apply to him either). Thus, her value as a woman is called into question. Strong-willed as she may be regarding this one issue, she is not exactly out to take down the patriarchy here. That her husband is, at least temporarily, physically unable to go confront the Chief on his own, it is up to Qiu Ju to do the heavy lifting, which is embarrassing to the both of them. She cannot let this affront to the dignity of her family go unanswered. At the same time, Wang cannot let his own authority and pride be undermined by his inferiors, certainly not by this nagging woman. To him, he was simply enforcing the rules and should not have to explain himself to some loudmouth lawbreaker. Neither Qiu Ju nor the Chief wants to, as they say, lose face. So Qiu Ju stubbornly keeps moving forward while the Chief does not budge.
Another theme is that of the interaction between the old China and the new China (well, 1992 China), and how the best of both worlds can be undermined by the collusion of the worst. Traditionally, the village elders watched out for his people and led by example. He was supposed to be virtuous. Chief Wang may be a good leader for the most part, but he turns petty and defensive when challenged. He defends himself against Qinglai not by reason or the rule of law, but by throwing his weight around and then resorting to violence. The traditional power structure has failed Qiu Ju, but the modern system is not that much better. The people within the bureaucracy are not necessarily bad people, but they are busy, frequently elsewhere, and more inclined to stick with a decision than to really review it. It is both inhumanly uncaring and subject to human flaws. Thus, just as a good example of the old China can be stymied by the inefficient behemoth of the new China, so can the well-meaning measures that the system of the new China has put in place get blocked by a rotten remnant of the old China. Qiu Ju wants what seems to be a simple request, but the path that she must travel is overly complicated and extremely frustrating. This may be a source of anger, cynicism, or sadness, but the absurdity of the situation here is part of the film’s humor.
One warning, the theme music for the movie is some traditional folk piece. You will probably know within the first few seconds whether you can tolerate it or if it annoys you. It plays multiple times throughout the movie, particularly in the beginning. It annoyed me during the first twenty-five minutes. Yet, as it got more infrequent, I began to miss it in its absence, and was almost happy when it returned towards the end. Well, amused would be a more accurate term.
If you see only one movie about a guy getting kicked in the balls, see The Story of Qiu Ju. It is quite funny, but not in the way that you may have initially thought it would be. And it is very good.
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