! Critic Judy Stone
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Ju Dou

There is more than meets the eye in "Ju Dou," a visually magnificent Chinese drama of adultery, murder and revenge.

The film, directed by Zhang Yimou, maintains a cool, detached approach to the tragedy of a sadistic dye factory owner, his long-suffering bride, her lover and the young couple's vengeful son. Everything is understated except the yards and yards of vivid red, orange, blue and umber strips of cloth that sensationally float from the ceiling down to the dye vats, providing a kind of mute, passionate commentary of their own.

The production won the 1990 Cannes Festival's Luis Bunuel prize and is a controversial contender for Best Foreign Film Oscar. Not yet shown in China, the film was nominated for the Oscar by the Chinese government, which later tried unsuccessfully to have it withdrawn from competition.

Ju Dou is the name of a lovely young woman (Gong Li) purchased by elderly factory owner Jinshan so that she can provide him with the son his first two wives failed to produce. The action takes place in rural Northwest China during the 1920s.

Tianqing ( Li Baotian), the adopted nephew of Jinshan and also exploited as a worker, learns about his new aunt when he returns from a selling trip. Touched by her beauty and disturbed by nightly screams from the bedroom, he timidly observes her through a hole in the wall that separates the factory from the living quarters. When she notices that he has been watching, she bares her back, cross-hatched with bruises.

Realizing that her life will be miserable unless she conceives, she prevails upon the reluctant Tianqing to make love to her. Even after their son is born, Tianqing is a tormented figure, as vulnerably played by Li Baotian, who expresses the awkwardness of the eternal victim.

He is unable to claim the boy as his own and unable to comply with Ju Dou's wishes to destroy the old man. When an accident leaves Jinshan paralyzed, the lovers flaunt their happiness in front of him until that vindictive old man almost becomes an object of pity.

Performed brilliantly by the veteran actor Li Wei (star of "River Without Buoys"), Jinshan is both hateful and pathetic, plotting his revenge as he is trapped in a basket suspended by pulleys from the ceiling. His only joy is for the boy and even that is tempered by jealousy and suspicion.

Ju Dou is made of tougher stuff than either her husband or lover, but Gong Li also reveals the dilemma she feels at being forced by tradition to live a lie and to observe son Tianbai's growing awareness and hostility towards her.

"Ju Dou" was adapted by writer Liu Heng from his novella "Fu-Xi,Fu-Xi." To circumvent strictures placed on Chinese filmmakers when dealing with contemporary subject matter, the movie's time frame was confined to the '20s; the novel stretches into the 1970s.

Zhang was particularly attracted by the realistic depiction of the characters. In an interview with Chinese American journalist, Lawrence Chua, Zhang noted that Tianqing endures his oppression because he lacks the "courage to face reality and is seemingly willing to lead a sort of double life. This 'self-enclosure' is characteristic of the Chinese people."

The film's subject is sensitive, Zhang told an interviewer, "because there are no positive role models, no heroes, and the characters don't make clear-cut ethical choices. I'm sure that if 'Ju Dou' extended into the contemporary era, I couldn't have made the film."

San Francisco Chronicle March 15, 1991