There is more than meets the eye in "Ju Dou," a
visually magnificent Chinese drama of adultery, murder
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it withdrawn from competition.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
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
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
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