issue 244 - June 1993
The Story of Qiu Ju
directed by Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s latest film is a bold departure from the lush and richly coloured melodrama of such earlier work as Jou Dou (an NI Film of the Year) and Raise the Red Lantern. He eschews exotic spectacle and the rarefied past for a low-key glimpse of contemporary China. Using a hidden camera and a cast that consists almost entirely of non-actors, the director tells the story of one woman’s attempt to achieve justice.
Gong Li, Yimou’s collaborator and wife, plays Qiu Ju, a young countrywoman expecting her first child. She is a woman with a mission. Her beef is with the local village chief who kicked her husband where it hurts after a careless remark about the chief only having sired daughters. Masculinity is what is at stake here. But it becomes a point of honour which ironically a woman attempts to restore. All Qiu Ju wants is an apology for her husband. It’s a quest, though, which leads her a slow dance through Beijing’s bureaucratic maze.
The film dawdles in the nicest possible way. It takes its pace from Qiu Ju herself – focused but gentle. As such it allows the audience to linger and observe the smallest of details – the contrasts between city-dwellers and countryfolk, for example, as in Beijing’s penchant for pop-star pin-ups rather than the traditional art that decorates the village walls. At first Qiu Ju is presented as a gauche naive in the big city but her intrinsic wisdom soon makes her savvy to city ways. It’s a classic comic ploy, used for example in Crocodile Dundee.
But the ultimate joke in this film is a rather sad one: how Qiu Ju’s simple, principled demand takes on a ridiculous life of its own and ends up totally out of control. If the starting-point of this film is a question of virility, its final reflection is on the impotence of an individual in the face of the state.
directed by Sally Potter
Seductive, witty and sumptuously entertaining, this adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s androgynous fantasy does not immediately come across as a political film.
But the politics are there – suggestive, deliberate and ultimately liberating. Gender assumptions are unsettled at the outset with the opening line ‘He – and there can be no doubt about his sex’. Now there is a touch of the androgynous about Tilda Swinton, who plays the main part, but for a twentieth-century audience nurtured on realism there can be no doubt that this Orlando is a woman. The delightful unsettling continues with the casting of Quentin Crisp in the role of Queen Elizabeth I and Orlando’s dalliance with the Russian princess who looks like a boy. It seems like the film is telling us, in the most playful of ways: ‘Never mind biology, never mind sexuality. Society decides your gender and it will give you power – or take it away – on the basis of that definition’.
The film is shot through with cultural references – to paintings, books, plays, writers and poets. Although this makes the viewing rich and the detection fun, it does give the film a somewhat élitist feel. This is not helped by the slight treatment of issues of wealth and class. There is little to indicate that the well-heeled modern Orlandos – although aware of sexual politics – have progressed much further on this front than the Elizabethan aristocrat who sees an old peasant woman carrying a bundle of firewood across a frozen river and is moved to reflect not on social conditions but on his own melancholy. In this director-screenwriter Sally Potter is certainly faithful to the spirit of Woolf’s text but it leaves an uneasy feeling all the same.
Finally, long-serving subscribers may recognize the name of the film’s producer, Christopher Sheppard – not so long ago he was an NI editor.
Women in Movement
by Sheila Rowbotham
Out of the Shadows
by Jo Fisher
(Latin America Bureau)
In Sheila Rowbotham’s history of feminist social action and thought Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin do not get a mention. Yet these are not shocking omissions – the book's purpose is to familiarize the reader with the origins of popular feminist movements (it’s interesting just how long some ‘radical’ ideas have been around) and record a wide range of women’s activism.
Women in Movement spans two centuries and painstakingly reconstructs the objectives and gains of myriad struggles without failing to address issues of class and race. It is to Rowbotham's credit that she presents her material in historical context. She notes dispassionately, for example, how the debate on sexuality among 1920s Anglophone feminists was influenced by the popular focus on eugenics.
The book is intended as an introduction and it is a lively and judicious one, seasoned liberally with little-known anecdotes. Sometimes whole stories get disposed of in a line and the comparisons between disparate cultures can be uneasy. But the scope is still admirably broad.
Jo Fisher’s thoroughly researched book on women’s resistance movements in South America focuses on women pushed out of the male-dominated shadows by the brutality of military dictatorships. Over and over the women she interviews inform us that they were able to register their protests precisely because the authorities thought they were of no importance until they were unstoppable.
Fisher ranges from communal kitchens in Chilean shanty towns, to women’s labour movements in Uruguay and the much-publicized mothers of the disappeared in Argentina. Though sometimes repetitive and intellectually unadventurous, the book is brought alive by no-nonsense analysis from the women themselves. Most claim their movements aren’t feminist, showing a distrust of the middle-class, language-centred debates of the West. Their own reality was much more basic – the absence of food, the imprisonment of partners or children.
An important outcome of these movements born of great turmoil is that they are here to stay: the women realize they cannot fit back into roles tailored by societies where machismo is widespread. Their struggle is not over: democracy has not meant better economic conditions.
Das Wunder der Heliane
by Erich Korngold
Jonny spielt auf
by Ernst Krenek
In 1938, Dusseldorf in Nazi Germany staged an exhibition entitled Entartete Musik – ‘degenerate music’. Its purpose was to demonstrate to the Fatherland the horrors of any music that wasn’t about Wagnerian superheroes climbing glaciers. Atonal music, jazz, and ‘degenerate subjects’ were targeted.
Now Decca has – with grim purpose – taken up the Nazi phrase to launch a series of music suppressed under the Third Reich. Operas by the almost-forgotten Krenek and Korngold open this ambitious, admirable series, which seeks not just to rehabilitate important music but has an eye firmly on the present.
Jonny was a hit from its premiere in 1927. Although the Austrian Krenek was not Jewish, it’s easy to see why the Nazis found his jazz opera degenerate. Jonny, a charmer in an all-black jazz band, has a fondness for stealing but also gets the best tunes. Max, his antithesis, is a glacier-climbing composer riddled with metaphysical doubts: hardly a model Aryan. Above all, Jonny was a modern opera, featuring telephones, radios and cars as well as stage sets influenced by Bauhaus and expressionism.
Korngold’s elaborate fantasy Das Wunder der Heliane could not have been more different. Although its themes of love, redemption and suffering were typically Wagnerian and his musical style as sugary as Strauss, Korngold was Jewish. Nazi logic thus deemed him degenerate.
Both operas are significant period pieces. If Jonny’s reception reveals the Nazi loathing for polyculturalism and abstraction, then Wunder shows the intricacies involved in separating Korngold – who writes within a firmly German tradition – from ‘Aryan’ musicians.
In fact the Dusseldorf exhibition was a great success, for unintended reasons. Fed up with a diet of bombastic music and anodyne art, Germans flocked there to get a fix of vibrant music. One of the many lessons that the Nazi experience has given history lies in a simple truth: the existence of purity is contingent on that of impurity. We should never forget it.
Some of the fascination exercised by dystopian novels lies in their unsettling ability to suggest that their bleak vision is not of the future but of the here and now. George Orwell may have pitched his story in some distant – and by implication avoidable – time to come. But Nineteen Eighty-Four was really about 1948. Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn, first published in Spanish in 1987, looked forward just five years to 1992. Even more so than the English ‘prophet’, he was really describing a contemporary crisis.
I first read Christopher Unborn at a time when, through my work, I was being bombarded by press reports raving about the economic ‘miracle’ performed by the administration of Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Salinas’ Chicago School economics involved opening protected markets, privatizing federal companies and banks and moving to closer integration with the US through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The well-publicized fruits of so-called Salinastroika – a sharp reduction in inflation, economic growth and the return of billions of dollars of flight capital – masked the erosion of the average wage's purchasing power and the profoundly undemocratic nature of this brave new world.
The ‘modernization’ of Mexico has involved revising many of the ideals and institutional legacies of the Revolution – even the reviled dictator Porfirio Diaz has been rehabilitated. But one important stone has been left unturned: the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has enjoyed more than 60 years of unbroken power, winning the 1988 presidential elections by what was widely held to be massive electoral fraud. Miracles are, after all, undemocratic by nature.
The Mexico of Christopher Unborn is culturally, environmentally and economically brutalized by its rulers’ prostration before Washington. The US has reinvaded the state of Veracruz at the invitation of the Mexican Government, which is trying to prove its machismo to the rest of the world and its own people; Chiapas and the Gulf states of the Yucatan and Campeche have been turned over to Club Med to generate foreign exchange for the sole purpose of servicing the foreign debt; and the northern territories have broken away to form Mexamerica, a squalid, polluted, semi-independent state thriving off its capitalist industrial complex.
The unregulated scramble to industrialize has devastating environmental fallout. Thirty million people live in Makesicko City, ‘an immense ulcerated crater, a cavity in the universe, the dandruff of the world, the chancre of the Americas, the haemorrhoid of the Tropic of Cancer’. Meanwhile Acapulcalypse drowns in a ‘grand wave of poop’ seething up from the sewers, the sea and the bathrooms of tourist hotels. You don’t need to have studied contemporary Mexico in depth to recognize the accuracy of the picture.
What of the view that the Church of the Free Market has created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth? In Fuentes’ version ministers have given up trying to do anything about the quality of life. They accept that, however good the statistics look on paper, ‘the vast majority of Mexicans are screwed’. Instead they resort to increasingly surreal forms of public persuasion. A young girl is plucked from obscurity to become the Mother and Doctor of all Mexicans (Mamadoc). She is injected, implanted, made up so heavily she can’t keep her eyes open, and sewn up so she can’t have children – ‘the perfect mix of Mae West and the Virgin of Guadeloupe’. Touted as the national symbol of womanhood, she announces a competition to select the next president. He will be a child named Christopher born on the stroke of midnight on 12 October 1992 – the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first landing in the Americas. Enter our narrator: Christopher Unborn himself.
The language of his narrative is perhaps the one source of hope in an otherwise deeply pessimistic vision. Fuentes has long been preoccupied with the question of Mexican identity – how to get on in the modern world without simply becoming a US annex, without suppressing the profound difference between Mexico’s pre-Columbian history and that of its European conquerors. He has said that the adoption of European models by Latin American artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represented a denial of ‘half of our being, of our past’.
Since the publication in 1958 of his first novel, Where the Air is Clear, Fuentes has experimented with time frames, using flashbacks and switching between narrative voices to give form to the statement that ‘today began 10,000 years ago’. Some of the results have been more readable than others. In Christopher Unborn the sparkling, punning, hybrid language pouring out of an omniscient foetus makes for a funny, learned and eminently readable panorama.
If, like me, you think novels can tell the essential truth of our time, this one is essential history.
Christopher Unborn by Carlos Fuentes (1987)