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Film review: Story of Qiu Ju, The

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After a pair of lushly photographed, large-scale period pieces about revenge and passion ("Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou"), director Zhang Yimou and his wife/star Gong Li have turned their talents to smaller, modern-day observations.

But "The Story of Qiu Ju" is only deceptively simple, as it tells the story of one woman's obsessive quest for justice with an unexpected wry comic approach. This stunningly photographed film is also quite ironic, complete with an O. Henry-style twist at the end — but its reach is universal, as it says something about pride and respect.

As the film opens, the very pregnant Qiu Ju (Gong Li) is taking her husband to the doctor. It seems he has been kicked in the groin by the village chief after a disagreement between them, and he is, naturally, in great pain.

Qiu Ju takes her husband home and after briefly discussing the incident, sets about trying to get an explanation and an apology from the chief for his inappropriate action. But he is arrogant and stern and refuses to back down.

So, Qiu Ju begins taking steps through the chain of command, first with the chief's immediate superior, who orders him to pay the medical bills but can't get him to apologize.

Qiu Ju wants that apology, however — so much so that she refuses the money, despite her family's lean financial situation and her husband's willingness to let it go. Instead, Qiu Ju continues up the chain, being told repeatedly that she should take the money and drop it. Eventually, after being let down at every level, she is advised to take legal action and files a civil suit against the chief.

Ultimately, however, an incident occurs that tips the scales and there is an unexpected conclusion, resulting in a final, haunting close-up of Qiu Ju's face as she realizes where her long journey has ended.

There are many exquisite moments here, little touches that give us insights into the character of this woman, who is strong, courageous and tenacious, despite being naive and a bit frightened in the midst of the big city, where she must go to pursue her cause.

At the center of all this is Gong Li's touching and subtle performance. A luminous actress who never hits a false note, Gong is magnificent. She is so good that even when Qiu Ju seems to be pushing things a bit too far, we never fail to understand her motivations as Gong's face tells us everything that Qiu Ju is feeling.

"The Story of Qiu Ju" is rated PG for a few profanities.