FILM / Painting the great walls of China

The Story of Qiu Ju (12). . . .Zhang Yimou (Ch)

Trespass (18). . . . . . . . . Walter Hill (US)

Rich in Love (PG). . . . . . . Bruce Beresford (US)

From the Pole. . .(no cert). . Yervant Gianikian (W Ger/It)

An Actor's Revenge (PG). . . . Kon Ichikawa (Jap)

Zhang Yimou enjoys an international reputation as an art film director (overseas funding, critical kudos, a chain of festival prizes) unmatched by his delicate status in China, where his last two films, Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou were both banned until last year.

He now astonishes us with a work completely different from its predecessors. And, while The Story of Qiu Ju keeps the first side of the equation (Hong Kong money, great reviews, a Golden Lion at Venice), it has also gone down a storm back home in Peking. But has the official seal of approval been bought at the price of political expediency?

After a flush of elegant, superbly mounted period pieces, Zhang has created a very modern story - Qiu Ju is set in a prosperous chilli-farming village in the mountains around Xi'an. Gong Li (the beautiful concubine in Red Lantern) is almost unrecognisable as a tough, heavily pregnant peasant woman whose husband has been kicked where it hurts in a dispute with his village chief. Determined to win an apology, she goes to the local Public Security Bureau, and when that fails to get satisfaction, to the provincial PSB and, finally, the civil court.

Using a palette of rich reds - chains of chilli peppers and matching festive clothes and lanterns - glowing against the snow, the film has a vibrant, fluid beauty. Shooting in the streets with hidden cameras and radio mikes, Zhang plunges his actors - a handful of professionals playing in a cast of delightfully salty and endearing amateurs - into the maelstrom of Chinese life. We see a bashful young couple applying for a marriage licence, a woman sitting on a sofa perched, in its turn, on a rickshaw wobbling gingerly through the crowded streets, posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger jockeying for position alongside Chairman Mao - a vivid insight into universal quirks of human behaviour and a remote culture in rapid flux. It's a masterclass in naturalistic film-making.

As in Zhang's earlier work, the tale touches on the position of women in China - the original dispute sprang from a taunt against the village chief, who had violated the country's one-child policy, but produced 'only' daughters. And, in her odyssey through the male-dominated authorities, Qiu Ju appears as a lone woman crusading against the patriarchal establishment. Her story is presented as a Brechtian fable - each segment preceded by a caption, the verse of a ballad and a sequence showing Qiu Ju balancing her swollen belly on a series of precarious modes of local transport.

It's easy for Western viewers to see Qiu Ju as an affirmation of the individual's rights, and also a propaganda exercise for the Chinese system of justice (the officials are shown as, without exception, friendly and honest chaps). But it can also be read as a more subtle denunciation both of Qiu Ju, whose dogged determination to get an apology, cost it what it may, smacks of pigheadedness, and also of a certain Chinese mindset - the repeated references to the importance of 'saving face' will be familiar to anyone who has visited the country. Zhang's ironic morality tale attacks both an inept modern bureaucracy and an ancient, Confucian tradition which locks everyone into a code of protocol and formalities, and forces them to pretend smiling acquiescence while standing stubbornly on their dignity.

Walter Hill's Trespass started life as Looters and underwent a name-change and postponed release in the fallout from last year's riots. In it, two white-trash firemen (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) from hicksville, Arkansas, get their mitts on a treasure map that leads them to a cache of stolen gold in a derelict warehouse in east St Louis. There, however, they bump into a black drugs gang that uses the building as its base.

The firemen take a hostage, who turns out to be the kid brother of the gang's suave boss, played by Ice-T (the Ice who played the cop in New Jack City), who's also fighting to maintain his leadership against a challenge from the excitable Ice Cube (the Ice from Boyz N the Hood). As both sides panic, the film develops into a violent, dark tragi-comedy of mistrust and misunderstanding. It's not a bad genre piece - I liked the gang's use of portable phones to organise their siege, and Hill's use of a time-coded camcorder to show the passage of the hours, but well below this director's best.

The same goes for Bruce Beresford's Rich in Love, a return, after the louring drama of Black Robe to the American South (profitable terrain for Beresford, what with Driving Miss Daisy and, to a lesser extent, Crimes of the Heart) and one of those irritatingly / endearingly dysfunctional families. Albert Finney is the slightly improbable but likeable patriarch putting the bits back together after his wife walks out on him, and his daughters suffer the usual growing-up traumas in this competent plod through overworked movie territory.

For intrepid viewers in search of something really off the beaten track, a funny, rather magical little film called From the Pole to the Equator plays at the ICA Cinematheque from next Wednesday. The film-makers have taken footage from the archives of Luca Comerio, a pioneer of early cinema specialising in travel documentaries, and have re-edited it, slowed down, brightly tinted and supplied with a spooky minimalist soundtrack. The result is something like a sci-fi film with Jules Vernian explorers, nuns and missionaries, and mustachioed colonials subduing the natives around the globe - these guys are wider-travelled than Michael Palin - and mowing down endangered species with merry abandon.

Or you could go for a revival of Kon Ichikawa's 1963 film, An Actor's Revenge, a kind of stylised Jacobean revenge tragedy gone kabuki with a highly original use of theatrical devices and the CinemaScope frame.