A small village somewhere in China in the 1920s
By Edward Copeland
If it weren't for Siskel & Ebert, who knows when I would have heard about Ju Dou, which premiered 20 years ago today in Los Angeles. More importantly, when would I have become enraptured with the work of Chinese director Zhang Yimou or began my cinematic crush on Gong Li. I'm not certain how long after I heard about Ju Dou that I finally was able to see it, but it was a great day once I did. (I actually saw Raise the Red Lantern first.) Rewatching it, I'd forgotten that Zhang actually co-directed the film with Yang Fengliang, who sort of faded away with no IMDb credits since 1997, but Zhang continued to grow as a filmmaker and most consider Ju Dou mostly his vision. Regardless, Zhang went on solo, making better and better films. Even though he'd made two movies prior to Ju Dou (including the very good Red Sorghum which I didn't see until many years later), that was my starting point and it was a great place to begin.
When I think of Ju Dou (which takes its title from the name of Gong's character), the first thing that comes to mind — more than the story, more than the performances or characters — is color, lots of shades of active, vibrant colors that practically become characters in its own right. There's a good reason for that as one of the early subtitles, which appears as Tianqing (Li Baotian) returns to a building with a loaded-down horse, identifies the rugged-looking structure as the Yang family dye mill. An even better reason: Ju Dou used Technicolor, the long-since-abandoned tri-color process pioneered by Hollywood studios that gave many American classics their stunning looks. Tianqing greets his uncle (Li Wei), who owns the mill, and he berates his nephew's tardiness which Tianqing explains was due to many bandits on the road. The uncle tells the man who had done Tianqing's work during his absence that he won't be needed any longer. Tianqing learns from the man that while he was gone selling goods that the miserly old man only paid him $2 for all of the work that Tianqing usually did — and bought himself a new wife as well. Tianqing's previous two aunts, the replacement worker tells him, had been tortured to death by the old man because they didn't bear him any children. Already, the replacement reports, he'd heard the new bride's screams from the uncle's brutal attempts at lovemaking during the nights Tianqing was gone.
Aside from hearing his aunt's screams on his first night home, Tianqing had yet to see Ju Dou. The wondrous colors of the film don't just flow from the mill's function as a place that dyes fabric, but in the beautiful palate painted by cinematographers Gu Changwei and Yang Lun, which often bathe the actors in specific color schemes throughout the film. For example, whenever Tianqing hears Ju Dou being abused by his uncle at night, the images become saturated in a cool blue hue. Ju Dou herself often seems to mimic the light of the sun in yellows in picture or dress (costumes designed by Zhang Zhi-an). His first morning back at work at the mill, Tianqing gets sent by his uncle to fetch Ju Dou for him and he (as well as the audience) lays eyes on her for the first time. Her beauty stuns Tianqing as it did me as well. Gong simply is one of the most gorgeous faces ever to grace celluloid and her character Ju Dou recognizes the reaction in Tianqing, who isn't a boy after all, but a man in his 40s, by giving a sly smile after he leaves. It's a grin that captured my heart and I'm sure many other moviegoers as well. What's great is that Gong Li doesn't get by on looks alone: There is a fine actress inside the beautiful visage and while she's very good in Ju Dou, she'd prove even greater in later films by Zhang and in Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine. Alas, when she's tried to strike out in English-language performances, the results have not been as good. She's at her best in her native tongue.
For awhile, Tianqing and Ju Dou just watch each other tenuously while she still suffers at the hands of his uncle. Tianqing will peek through cracks and watch Ju Dou bathe (though she knows he's doing it), but the old tyrant inhibits them from acting on any attraction. In one horrible scene, we see that the uncle has Ju Dou bound and gagged and sits on top of her, telling her, "When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you're no better than an animal." Her cries almost prompt Tianqing to act, but he holds himself back, even when he spies her again and sees all the bruises. Ju Dou finally breaks down one day and tells Tianqing that his uncle will kill her sooner or later and she wants him to just let her die. She also tells him that the cheap old tyrant is sick and can't even perform sexually anymore. "He's not human. He's not a man," Ju Dou cries. Tianqing feels helpless, especially when he's sent off on another trip to sell goods. When he returns, the horse is very sick and for the first time, the uncle seems genuinely concerned about something other than money and leaves with the animal in hopes of getting it life-saving treatment.
With the old man's absence, Ju Dou uses the time to take advantage of Tianqing, turning into a world-class seductress who seems as if she's just popped out of a Hollywood film noir. While Tianqing initially resists, Ju Dou keeps her sultry pressure on, asking him, "Am I a wolf? Do you think I'd eat you?"
When Tianqing finally gives in, the consummation may be the movie's greatest sequence. He kick-starts the fabric wheel as he passionately lays her down and yards of fabric spin wildly out of control, running through the dye, turning bright red as the nephew makes love to his aunt with reckless abandon.
As you probably guessed, the affair between Ju Dou and Tianqing leads to Ju Dou finally getting pregnant. You would think, given the fact that Uncle Jinshan takes to torturing all his wives because of his impotence, he'd realize that he couldn't be the father, but he's joyous at the news, hoping for a big fat baby boy, which Tianqing also hopes for, though he and Ju Dou must share the news through a window pane in order not to arouse suspicions. Sure enough, Ju Dou does have a boy and the town elders help select a name for the newborn, noting that one bad first name could mean the end of the line for the Yang family. The elders note that most of the good names have been taken before settling on Tianbai. However, they may not have picked well because soon after Jinshan, while on an outdoor excursion, suffers an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down and the temporary happiness the bitter old man displayed with the birth of "his son" evaporates and with it comes suspicions that perhaps Tianbai might be Tianqing's son, not his.
With his uncle — her husband — paralyzed, the lovers get more careless, even going so far as to make out on the marital bed with the child lying next to them. Just because Jinshan has lost the use of his legs, doesn't mean his hate isn't strong enough to power the rest of his body and he crawls on the floor toward the child once, but Ju Dou catches him and then he tries to attack her. She easily gets away and then tells him the whole truth while he's prone on the floor, enjoying her new sense of power over the invalid. Later, the old man even manages to crawl all the way down the stairs and starts a fire, trying to burn the mill and its inhabitants, but he's stopped again and finally Tianqing comes up with a barrel to place him in and suspends him in the air at night, though Ju Dou recommends killing him outright, but Tianqing can't do it saying that as awful as the man is, he's still his uncle. His height brings him even with some of the figurines of their altar and Jinshan pleads with the gods to take care of "these beasts." It is one of my few problems with the film that it took them so long to try to come up with a better solution for the uncle. Speaking for myself, one murder attempt would have been enough for me to do something with the paralyzed guy. The parents though are starting to wonder about their child, who seems unusually quiet.
The three live together uncomfortably, to say the least, even dining together, where uncle is prone to spit food out at his nephew and his wife, who seem never to learn their lesson about the man, equipping his barrel with wheels and giving him what I guess you would call oars to wheel himself around. Their worries about Tianbai have grown more serious, especially for Tianqing, who suspects that the 3-year-old (Zhang Yi) could be a mute since he's still never said a word, but Ju Dou thinks he's just anxious to hear him call him daddy. As the two lovers get carried away with themselves outside, they don't notice that Tianbai has wandered back into the mill, looking to dye branches with leaves. Jinshan spots him though and slowly wheels toward the boy, seeing his opportunity to drown the bastard child. Just as he's within reach, Tianbai suddenly turns around and starts calling Jinshan daddy, stunning the old man who hugs the child tight, convinced that this must mean he is indeed his child. Ju Dou and Tianqing, having noticed the boy's absence, run into the mill just in time to witness this scene.
Needless to say, more twists will be coming, but I will spare anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of seeing Ju Dou, which packs a lot of plot into its tight running time of barely more than 90 minutes. Seeing it again after so many years, it plays less as the forbidden romance that I remember and more in a noirish vein with a strong sense of karmic justice. When Zhang Yimou recently bungled a remake of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple with his film A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, it struck me that though the plot certainly differs, in its own way Ju Dou resembles a closer reinvention of the Coens' film than Zhang's more recent effort did. Also, in light of the just-finished For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon in which I wrote about Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, Ju Dou reminded me of the reporter's line toward the end of that film that "No one escapes punishment."
Twenty years since Ju Dou began playing U.S. theaters after it received an Oscar nomination as foreign language film (which it, as well as Michael Verhoeven's great The Nasty Girl and Jean-Paul Rappeneau's solid Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gérard Depardieu, lost to the bore that is Journey of Hope), Zhang Yimou's film remains a keeper and a great welcoming beacon of his greater work to come such as Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live. It's also worth noting that when Ju Dou received that Oscar nomination for foreign language film, it was the first ever for a film from China, though Zhang couldn't attend the Academy Awards ceremony. At the time and for many years after it was made, Ju Dou was banned in its country of origin by the repressive Chinese regime uncomfortable with the film's sexuality (tame by American standards) and what the communists saw as an allegorical critique of modern China by its attack on the customs and patriarchal society of China in the 1920s. Sadly, Zhang would face this problem on many of his best films and I fear that's what has stifled him on his more recent efforts, making him shy away from the type of films that made his reputation and toward more noncontroversial, commercial fare. It's tragic, but at least we still have those early films even if he's never able to make another movie that comes close to equaling them.