Directors: Zhang Yimou, Yang Fengliang (some sources list Yang as Zhang's collaborator)
Production: China Film Co-Production Corporation, China Film Export and Import Corporation, Tokuma Shoten Publishing Company Ltd., Tokuma Communications Company Ltd, Xi An Film Studio; color, 35mm.; Panavision; running time: 95 minutes. Released April 1991 in United States.
Producers: Zhang Wenze, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Hu Jian; screenplay: Liu Heng, based on his novella; photography: Gu Changwei, Yang Lun; editor: Du Yuan; art directors: Cao Juiping Cao, Xia Rujin; original music: Zhao Jipin; sound: Li Lanhua.
Cast: Gong Li (Ju Dou); Li Baotian (Yang Tianqing); Li Wei (Yang Jinshan); Zhang Yi (Yang Tianbai [infant]); Zheng Jian (Yang Tianbai [Youth]).
Award: Chicago Film Festival Golden Hugo Award, 1990.
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* * *
Ju Dou may be viewed on two levels: as a folktale of innocence and evil, a simple and powerful work of cinematic art; and as a biting and controversial political allegory. Its success helped thrust its director, Zhang Yimou, into the international spotlight. Zhang, working in collaboration with Yang Fengliang, has made a haunting film about the manner in which peoples' lives are stifled when they are ruled by rigid custom, rather than human desire.
The setting is a small village somewhere in China during the 1920s. The three primary characters, each broadly drawn, are a heroine, hero, and villain. The latter is the most conventional: Yang Jinshan, a miserly, sadistic old man who owns a dye mill. Desperate to father a male heir, Jinshan already has purchased two wives, whom he has tortured to death when they failed to bear him a child. Ju Dou is his newest spouse, his latest possession. Because she has not immediately become pregnant, he is battering her. "I bought you, now obey me," he tells her. "When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you're no better than an animal."
Yang Tianqing is Jinshan's shy, repressed nephew. He was adopted by the old man after his parents died, and he is treated more like a slave than a relation. Each night, Tianqing silently listens to Ju Dou's screams and pleadings. He is not even introduced to her, and first sees Ju Dou while peeping at her through a hole in the wall as she removes her blouse. Inevitably, Ju Dou and Tianqing are drawn to each other—and Ju Dou becomes pregnant during their first sexual encounter. So Jinshan's own impotence is the explanation for Ju Dou's and her predecessors' inability to bear him children—and his tirades and beatings only add to his hypocrisy. Even more to the point, in feudal China, the only weapon that the poor and powerless Ju Dou and Tianqing can employ in rebellion against Jinshan is their sexual attraction.
By far the film's most intriguing character is Ju Dou, who is victimized because of her gender. While it would be unrealistic for her to openly oppose Jinshan, she defies him in a subtler—and more believable—manner. Within the boundaries of her situation, she proves to be remarkably bold and decisive. That she is able to gain a modicum of control over her life is extraordinary, given her plight. It is Ju Dou who initiates the relationship with Tianqing, and not the other way around; she is the aggressor, while he is passive. Essentially, Tianqing is weak-willed: an observer rather than participant, a peeping tom who never would defy his uncle on his own. He only resists at Ju Dou's prodding, and when overcome by his lusty urges.
After Jinshan is paralyzed from the waist down in an accident, Tianqing has the opportunity to kill him. But he does not. He and Ju Dou may now feel empowered—Ju Dou brazenly reveals to Jinshan the true identity of the father of her newborn son—but the old man has his revenge when the toddler mistakenly recognizes him as his parent. Finally, Ju Dou's and Tianqing's son grows into an angry, tyrannical devil, a pint-sized duplicate of Jinshan, with the boy manipulated by the old man into despising his real father.
And so the point is clear: in order to destroy evil, you must not allow it to fester. You must completely snuff it out. If you let it exist because you have the upper hand, it surely will regain its foothold and destroy you. Later on, after Jinshan accidentally drowns, Tianqing does not rejoice. Rather, he automatically assumes that Ju Dou murdered the old man. Tianqing insists on adhering to the customs that have made his life wretched, and have kept him from openly being with Ju Dou. "Killing one's husband cries out for punishment," he pronounces. "Didn't he deserve to die?" Ju Dou asks. In response, Tianqing slaps her. After the town's elders deem that Ju Dou can never remarry, and that Tianqing must move out of the mill, Ju Dou wants to leave the village. But Tianqing insists on staying— and prolonging his and Ju Dou's misery.
On one level, Ju Dou clearly is a condemnation of the oppressiveness of feudal China and the ancient customs and ancestral heritage that resulted in a patriarchal society. Yet the film also may be interpreted as a critique of modern, communist China. The villain of the piece is a belligerent, sexually impotent old man—and the film is the product of a nation that is ruled by old men who often are perceived as contentious. Ju Dou might be viewed as an allegory for the manner in which a small group of elderly Maoists oversee Chinese society; meanwhile, Ju Dou and Tianqing, as they fearfully cling to one another, are representative of the beaten-down masses; and their cold, uncomprehending son symbolizes the Red Guard. The dye factory setting is not at all arbitrary. The bright pigments—and especially the reds—that dominate the coloring process are reflective of Ju Dou's and Tianqing's passion. However, unlike the colored sheets, which shine brightly in the sun, their emotions must be repressed, must remain clandestine.
Unsurprisingly, Ju Dou—which was partially produced with Japanese financial backing—was banned in China. Its controversy was sparked by the allegorical nature of the story, and the depiction of characters whose needs, desires, and individuality take precedence over their relation to a group. Additionally, the sexuality portrayed, while tame by Western standards, is brazen for a Chinese film.
Ju Dou could not be completely repressed. First, it was a hit on the international film festival circuit. Then it became the initial Chinese feature ever to win a Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination.