Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Gem: The Life of Qiu Jin

She is one of the few historical figures esteemed in both Communist China and free Taiwan. She was a marital arts warrior who once had her feet bound. She is a feminist icon in China, a country which granted women’s suffrage before America, yet in recent years has witnessed a surge of white slavery throughout its provincial districts. Such is the complicated legacy of Qiu Jin, whose eventful life is the subject of Rae Chang and Adam Tow’s Autumn Gem (trailer here), a documentary currently playing across the country at colleges and arts organizations, like the Visual Arts Guild, who sponsored Gem’s Tuesday night screening in Tribeca.

Things were kind of a mess in China during the closing years of the Qing Dynasty. Following several humiliating military defeats, foreign influence was at an all time high in China, while their international prestige was embarrassingly low. Concurrently, dubious traditions like foot-binding were still widely practiced. It was this environment that forged Qiu Jin’s ideology—a revolutionary combination of feminism and nationalism.

Married by arrangement rather than free choice, Qiu Jin did not find domestic life blissful. She would eventually heal her feet and find like-minded comrade-in-arms, eventually spending time in exile with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Though she tried to ignite a truly feminist rebellion, Qiu Jin was ultimately executed (in a manner typically reserved for men), which some of Autumn’s expert historians argue she may have purposefully accepted in hopes of becoming a revolutionary martyr.

Since Qiu Jin was beheaded in 1907, there are few photographs of her extant, nearly all of which are reproduced in Autumn. Given the relative scarcity of historical images, Chang and Tow stage several dramatic re-enactments throughout the film, while also relying on traditional documentary elements, including periodic talking head interviews. Li Jing, who trained under Jet Li’s former coach and has performed stunt work on major Hollywood films, is quite well cast as Qiu Jin, bringing the right physical presence to the role. Based on her performance in Autumn, one could easily envision her as a future action star

To their credit, Chang and Tow paint a full portrait of their protagonist, not just as a feminist rebel, but also as an accomplished poet. However, it seems like they are deliberately vague when discussing the political implications of her philosophy. Still, their resourcefulness is impressive, having recreated many turn-of-the century China at locations throughout the Bay Area. They also filmed several scenes in Mainland China, including an interview with one of Qiu Jin’s surviving ancestors. (Evidently, they also had a rather unnerving run-in with the Beijing authorities while filming in Tiananmen Square.)

Autumn is an informative and entertaining documentary, with a smattering of martial arts thrown in for good measure. At about an hour’s running time, Chang and Tow do not have the time to get bogged down in historical minutiae. Wringing a strong technical package out of a limited budget, they have produced a tightly focused film that memorably introduces the woman often referred to as “China’s Joan of Arc” to American audiences. Autumn’s tour wraps up in California with upcoming screenings in San Francisco (11/9) and Stanford (11/30).