(first draft) Tragic Chinese Chick Movies

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Let me clarify what I mean by that title, before somebody hollers and things turn tragic for me. The emphasis here is not on Chinese Chicks, but on Chick Movies* that come out of China, specifically the tragic ones.

The ones I've seen have been really good, but many of them deal with oppressed women, and most of them end with the protagonists dead or depressed or turned heartless in order to survive.

Raise The Red Lantern

(1991) Gong Li stars as Songlian, a young woman who reluctantly becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man in 1920's China. Each wife has her own house inside the castle walls. Every time the master chooses to spend the night at a different wife's house, the servants and wives are called out to witness as they "raise the red lantern" at the chosen house. The chosen wife then gets extra privileges like a foot massage every night and choosing what meals will be served to everyone. Wives fall in and out of favor based on their behavior, their age, whether they are able to bear children, or sabotage from their rivals.

By the end of the story, Songlian defeats her rivals by turning into the kind of person she used to hate. One or more people die. Not a happy ending.

The Story of Qiu Ju

(1992) It's hard to read the promotional materials for this movie and imagine how it could be another heart-wrenching story of a woman finding dignity in an impossible situation. The chief of the village kicked Qiu Ju's husband in the groin. Not just a little love-tap to the upper thigh like you see on those "funniest home video" tv shows. We're talking a trip to the hospital and maybe permanent sterility. When the village chief refuses to apologize or compensate the family, Qui Ju (played by Gong Li) appeals to a county authority, then a higher authority, finally taking it to court. All the while, she's wandering around the big city treated like a bumpkin, getting lost.

I can't remember how it ends, but don't bet on it turning out happy for anyone. At least no one dies in this movie, if I remember correctly.

Red Sorghum

(1987) Besides showing an interesting tale, this one has the kind of outstanding visuals that would make it worth watching even with the sound off. Fields of sorghum swaying in the wind, fresh wine getting spilled all over, everything tinted red throughout the movie.

Just to ensure that you confuse Red Sorghum with other Zhang Yimou and Gong Li movies, this one starts with another young woman forced to marry a man she hasn't met. Not only is the man way older, this time he's also a leper. But he owns a big winery way out in the country, and he dies before very long, so the servants and young widow form a sort of communal situation to keep things running. One of the wine-makers is a big lunkhead who managed to kidnap and seduce the young heroine in a field of sorghum. In case you haven't seen sorghum, it grows over your head, so the sexy kidnapper has to stomp a big patch of the stuff flat in order to give them room to make love in the middle of the field. Somehow this turns out not to be a rape scene.

Later the widow gives birth to a son by the lunkhead, and everybody at the winery has a swell time until the boy is about seven or eight years old. Then the movie totally shifts tone, grinding down into low gear as the Japanese invade China. Did I mention it was set in 1930-something? Happy story of the widow and the winery and the lunkhead and little boy is replaced by war and atrocity. For example, the Japanese command a local butcher to skin his former boss alive. When the butcher refuses, they command the butcher's assistant to skin the boss and the butcher.

The wine-makers and the lunkhead fight back against the occupying Japanese. Not a happy ending. Lots of major characters dead.


(1994) Not directed by Zhang Yimou! Not starring Gong Li! Not as high a body count! Set in China, but not 70 years ago! Still depressing.

Ermo is a young woman who is trying to "keep up with the Joneses." She's sick of her son going to watch tv at the home of her snotty neighbor-lady. Ermo decides that she'll do whatever it takes to buy a huge tv, bigger than the one owned by the head man of the county, the biggest tv in the county.

The snotty neighbor-lady is married to a guy named "Blindman"*. He offers to load Ermo's hand-woven baskets into his truck and give her a lift to town. He's a little more generous than he ought to be. Eventually he hooks her up with a job making noodles in the bigger town. They start having an affair. When Ermo gets in an argument with her boss at the restaurant, she finds out that the job never really paid that much. Blindman has been paying them to keep her working.

Will she get the tv? Will she maintain her dignity? I won't spoil it, but I'm pretty sure no one major dies. This one will leave you depressed, but not heartsick and weeping.

Xiu-Xiu: The Sent Down Girl

(1998) Joan Chen wrote and directed this gut-pummeling tragedy without needing to star in it or even appear in it. If you like crying, you'll hope that Ms. Chen comes out with more movies like Xiu-Xiu*. Many of these movies could be taken as criticisms of the society and government of China, but Xiu-Xiu makes it a central point of the story.

It's 1975, during the Cultural Revolution. Xiu-Xiu is one of the thousands (millions?) of teens "sent down" to the country-side to perform manual labor. It's meant to build character in these kids, teaching them to respect workers. Or maybe it's meant to get a lot of cheap labor out of energetic teens.

Xiu-Xiu is told that spending six months at hard labor will qualify her for a good position in the "Girl's Cavalry." Little does she know that her six months will be spent in a tent with a horse trainer named Lao Jin. He tries to make her comfortable, but Xiu-Xiu misses the city and hates the country. After six months, she hears that the Girl's Cavalry has disbanded, and no one is coming to get her. Eventually she begins sleeping with a series of officials and soldiers who claim they can help her return home.

Will Xiu-Xiu return home? Will Lao Jin win her love? All signs point to an ending that is not happy. This movie has fewer main characters, so it only takes a few of them getting killed to give it proportionately the largest body count.

Shanghai Triad

(1995) Zhang Yimou shows the decadent excesses of 1930s Shanghai through the eyes of Shuisheng, a fourteen year old boy brought from the country to work for a mob boss. If you're not Chinese, the names will be a little easier for you to remember in this movie. Although he works for "Boss," Shuisheng is assigned to be a personal servant for Boss's mistress, Miss*.

I suppose this one is less of a chick movie since it centers on the boy trying to adjust to his role as servant, learning to avert his eyes and stand at attention outside the door of Miss's room all night. But most of what Shuisheng sees is the life of the seductive mistress, the way she is used by Boss and others.

Before long, a gang war erupts between Boss and his rival Fat Yu. Boss is injured and several of his men killed in a firefight with Yu's men. The tone shifts with the setting, as Boss takes Miss and a few servants to hide out and recover on a small island. Here we follow Miss around the island, pouting about having nothing to do, demanding to go back to Shanghai, toying with the only inhabitants of the island, a poor widow and her young daughter.

One day while he's answering the call of nature in some bushes, Shuisheng overhears men planning to kill the Boss and Miss. Boss reveals that the whole idea of "hiding" on the island was an elaborate trap to draw out assassins and traitors from his own gang. He also reveals that you don't get to be Boss without killing a lot of people who get in your way, and a few more just for good measure.

You know you're going to see some main characters die, but this one makes it seem even worse when Boss orders the deaths of minor characters too, just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Substantial body count. Children turned into prostitutes. Narrator loses innocence and his spare change. A really sad, mean movie. If you place a Rainbow Bright doll in front of the television and run Shanghai Triad, the doll will evaporate due to the aura of hopelessness that emanates from this movie.

What does it all mean?

I thought I could draw some conclusion about China or women or women in China based on this handfull of films. But after a little more research, I realize that these movies have a similar tone because most of them are directed by Zhang Yimou, and most of them star Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Qui Ju, Shanghai Triad, Red Sorghum, and several others that I have to go find and add to this review). Still, nobody does movies about women's pain like this pair. And even if you do PR for the People's Republic of China, you have to admit that its history works well for setting tragedies.

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