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`Qiu Ju' Breaks New Ground

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou reemerges with sparkling film that captures village life

IN the past half-dozen years, a young Chinese filmmaker named Zhang Yimou has emerged as one of Asia's most exciting talents. His newest movie, a dramatic comedy called "The Story of Qiu Ju," gave ringing confirmation to that impression when it had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival a few months ago. Now it's opening in theaters across the United States, and it deserves to be a smashing hit.

The title character is a young pregnant woman who lives in a rural Chinese town. At the beginning of the story, her husband is recovering from a minor injury he suffered during a rather vigorous argument with the village chief.

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Although her spouse is ready to overlook the incident, Qiu Ju is convinced he's been wronged and that some kind of reparation - at least an apology - is due him. When the village chief stands on his dignity and refuses to say he's sorry, she appeals for help through official channels, only to be rebuffed. So she goes to a higher level of authority, where she's rebuffed again.

And thus begins a long, crazy series of what might be called Adventures in Bureaucracy as Qiu Ju travels ever further into the maze of Chinese government and journeys ever farther from her home seeking justice.

Despite his skill and sensitivity, Mr. Zhang's filmmaking career has not always gone smoothly. After making a flawed but promising debut with "Red Sorghum," a tale of World War II that found international success, he boosted his reputation higher still with "Ju Dou," the visually powerful tale of a woman who finds relief from a forced marriage by having a child with the nephew of her wicked husband.

This film was promptly nominated for an Academy Award, which should have made the Chinese authorities proud. Instead it made them unhappy, since they felt the movie conveyed too dark a view of Chinese life. They tried to yank "Ju Dou" from the Oscar race, and Zhang's many admirers wondered whether Chinese censors would allow him much freedom in his subsequent work.

The answer came with his next movie, "Raise the Red Lantern," another international hit. Again the story, about a woman who becomes one of a powerful aristocrat's wives, was compelling. Again the film was charged with tremendous visual beauty, and again the actress Gong Li - who stars in all of Zhang's films - gave a stunning performance.

But the movie had a peculiar lack of energy, unfolding its story through static images with an oddly claustrophobic air. It appeared that Zhang was solving his problem with the authorities by opting for caution.

The wonderful news about "The Story of Qiu Ju" is that Zhang has fully regained his confidence, verve, and imagination. For that matter, it's unlike any of Zhang's past films. It has a casual, off-the-cuff feeling from beginning to end - as if it were shot by someone who just happened to have a camera handy when Qiu Ju began her series of adventures and decided to film her story without getting in the way.

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I had a long conversation with Zhang during the New York Film Festival, and he confirmed that much of the story was filmed with a hidden camera, using nonprofessional performers for all but the most important roles. The movie captures the spontaneity and informality of real Chinese life, yet conveys these qualities through the subtly sophisticated artistry that Zhang has cultivated throughout his career.

"The Story of Qiu Ju" is funny, touching, surprising, provocative, and entertaining every step of the way. It's hard to imagine that 1993 will bring a more enjoyable achievement.

* "The Story of Qiu Ju" has a PG rating. It contains some vulgar language and a childbirth episode.

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