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The title character, a peasant sold as a concubine to a cruel old man,
is played by the beautiful Gong Li, one of the great actresses of our
time who followed this brilliant work with spectacular performances in
The Story of Qiu Ju (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), and Farewell,
My Concubine (1993). Li Wei plays her master, Yang Jin-shan, the
childless owner of a dye mill in the agrarian China of the 1920s. Li
Wei's fine performance combines craftiness with iniquity reminding me a
little of the late great John Huston with scruffy beard. The third
character in the tragic triangle is Jin-shan's nephew, Yang Tianqing, a
modest man who does most of the work in the dye mill. The pent-up
intensity of Li Baotian, who plays Tianqing, recalled to me at times
the work of Ben Kingsley. Ju Dou falls in love with Tianqing almost by
default, and it is their ill-fated love that leads to tragedy.
In some ways this visually stunning, psychologically brutal film about paternity and the old social order of China was Director Zhang Yimou's "practice" for the making two years later of his masterpiece, the afore mentioned, Raise the Red Lantern, one the greatest films ever made. The theme of patriarchal privilege is similar, and in both films Gong Li portrays a young concubine required to bear a son and heir to a cruel and ageing man of means. Even though the setting in both films is China in the twenties before the rise of Communism, both films very much annoyed the ageing leadership of Communist China and were censured (Ju Dou was actually banned), ostensibly for moral reasons, but more obviously because of the way they depicted elderly men in positions of power.
Ju Dou is the lesser film only in the sense that Sirius might outshine the sun were the two stars placed side by side. Both films are masterpieces, but for me Ju Dou was difficult to watch because of the overt cruelty of the master, whereas in Raise the Red Lantern, Yimou chose to keep the more brutal aspects of the story off camera. In a sense, then, Raise the Red Lantern is the more subtle film. It is also a film of greater scope involving more characters, infused with an underlining sense of something close to black humor. (The very lighting of the lanterns was slyly amusing as it ironically pointed to the subjugation.)
In Ju Dou there is virtually no humor and the emphasis is on the physical brutality of life under the patriarchal social order. Ju Dou is beaten and tortured while we learn that Jin-shan tortured his previous wives to death because of their failure to bear him an heir. The terrible irony is that it is Jin-shan who is sterile. He feels shamed in the eyes of his ancestors because the Wang line will die out with him. But a child is finally born through Ju Dou's illicit affair with Tianqing. (Note that this conjoining in effect saves Ju Dou's life.) Jin-shan thinks the infant is his son and briefly all is serenity. However, while two may live happily ever after, three will not. Notice too that now that Jin-shan has an heir, nephew Tianqing will inherit nothing.
Will they kill Jin-shan? Will fortuitous events put him out of the picture?
Will they find happiness? Will the boy learn the truth about his paternity? Yimou's artistry does not allow superficial resolution, you can be sure.
Note the two significant turns the film takes early on. One comes after Ju Dou discovers that Tianqing has been spying on her through a peep hole as she goes about her bath. At first she is mortified, and then sees this as a chance to show him the scars from the torture she endures daily, and then she shows him her body to allure him. The other turn comes as the child pronounces his first words by calling the old man "Daddy." Instantly Jin-shan, now confined to a wooden bucket that serves as a wheelchair, divines a deep psychological plan to realize his revenge. He embraces the child as his own, hoping to turn the boy against the illicit couple.
The strength of the film is in the fine acting, the beautiful sets, the gorgeous camera work, and in the unsentimental story that does not compromise or cater to saccharin or simplistic expectations. Yimou is a visual master who turns the wood gear- and donkey-driven dye mill of the 1920s into a tapestry of brilliant color and texture. Notable is the fine work that he does with the two boys who play the son at different ages. He has them remain virtually mute throughout and almost autistically cold. Indeed part of the power of this film comes from the depiction of the character of the son who grows up to hate who he is and acts out his hatred in murderous violence toward those around him.
Zhang Yimou is one of the few directors who can bring simultaneously to the silver screen the power of an epic and the subtlety of a character study. His films are more beautiful than the most lavish Hollywood productions and as artistically satisfying as the best in world cinema. The only weakness in the film is perhaps the ending which is played like a Greek tragedy for cathartic effect. One senses that Yimou and co-director Yang Fengliang in choosing the terminus were not entirely sure how this tale should end and took what might be seen as an easy way out.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
Ju Dou was censored and banned in China because it was considered
politically dangerous by portraying the lead female character as rebelling
against the male in authority. After it was promptly banned, it was
resurrected and made available for Western Hemisphere audiences via the
official protests of directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, George
Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. As a result, we have at our disposal, one of
the most beautifully constructed love stories ever made.
Despite the fact that this film was made within our contemporary era it presents an honest and frank portrayal without much sex or violence. Nevertheless, it still remains an intense piece of cinema. Interestingly, even though the story is set in the 1920's, the attitudes and manner of behavior reflect the attitudes of our times rather than the 1920's. The story is essentially a variation on a fairly familiar story-the basic premise being that of an older man being married to a younger woman, but is incapable of both satisfying her and providing offspring, so she finds a younger man who is capable of satisfying her. When she does, they conceive a child that the old man thinks is his. This usually makes for a poignant response to the old man's dilemma, because usually, the old man is portrayed as a sympathetic figure. In Ju Dou, he is anything but sympathetic, which makes for a whole new series of conflicting responses from the viewer.
Ju Dou is a film that transitions well between scenes, which is apparent in the film's structure. When seeing Ju Dou the viewer may want to take into consideration the three part structure of the film: a.) The beginning to where the old man becomes crippled b.) The second portion, which involves the birth of the son to where one of the lead character's dies and c.) The third portion, which involves the child. Ju Dou is a quiet and menacing film. When it hits its moments of high drama, it is very similar to a Greek tragedy. What stands out is the stoic nature of the characters, the incredible love scenes, and the final shocking conclusion.
'Ju Dou' is a fine example of cinema at its rawest. Director Zhang
Yimou hardly makes any use of special effects, keeps the background
score at a minimum, makes the sets look very real (they don't even look
like movie-sets) and yet he avoids his movie to look like a
documentary. He seems to have relied most on the camera and actors to
do the work. Even though the film is set in the 20s, 'Ju Dou' was one
of the most controversial movies in China and it was banned arguably
due to the way a powerful elderly man was depicted, a woman rebelling
against a man and/or the depiction of injustice towards women in China
and preference for a male heir.
A natural beauty, Gong Li in her early days, plays the title role of a peasant girl who's sold to an evil old man. This couldn't have been an easy part for a young actress to play but Li makes it look otherwise. She is phenomenal to watch. Li Wei as the cruel master does a great job too and he adds a humanity to his character that makes us sympathize for him. Li Baotian, as the evil master's nephew with whom Ju Dou has an illicit relationship, is just as brilliant.
The cinematography deserves special mention and some of the visuals and sceneries of the Chinese landscape are breathtaking. The writing is very good as the film sticks to the main story (no subplots) and the characters are rich, even that of the child who doesn't say anything. 'Ju Dou' does tackle a lot of issues (which is perhaps why it was banned) that are displayed graphically or hinted specifically. Also there's a lot of irony in the story that beautifully works. For example how the impotent evil master was once so intimidating that he tortured his previous wives to death but how quickly this turns around after Ju Dou gives birth and later on he sees hope in the child and uses him to vindicate his helpless state but that too has consequences. Yimou presents it all without throwing it at the audiences face.
Apart from the aforementioned, there's a visually poetic feel about 'Ju Dou'. It's executed in a very artistic way. The way he shows the dye mill, (which looks like any other old overused mill), and then the colourful sheets of cloth make is dazzling to look at. Also the mountains and river are shot in such a way that they look like beautiful postcards. Then there's another shot of a beaten up Gong Li sitting next to a lantern while the flickering firelight reveals her sad face.
I found the ending a little too abrupt. Perhaps Yimou should have developed this. Lastly, Yimou's intentions seem honest in the way he tells the story. He does not go over the top by including melodrama or making it preachy nor does he make it too simplistic. It's one of his finest works and some might find it difficult to watch but in the end it's a fine work of art that tells a relevant story.
What captivates me while watching a foreign language film is the depiction
of culture. I want to know what kind of customs the other countries have and
how they differ from my culture. Ju Dou is a Chinese film released in 1990.
It was co-directed by Yang Fengliang and Zhang Yimou. Coming three years
after The Last Emperor-a movie that depicts the Chinese culture in a
spectacular way-Ju Dou tells its story about normal people and how their
culture impedes their right to live and love.
Love stories have always been more interesting if it is about two struggling people. Who wants to see a rich guy and a beautiful model fall in love? Ju Dou's love story involves a man named Tianqing (Li Baotian) and his uncle's new wife Ju Dou (Gong Li). Tianjing's uncle, Jinshan (Li Wei), is a respected member of the village, and he tortured his previous two wives to death because they could not produce a heir for him. Tianqing is smitten by Ju Dou, while Ju Dou wants Tianqing to help her escape Jinshan's beatings.
Because of Chinese customs, Tianqing and Ju Dou cannot let the village know they are in love. The situation becomes more complicated when they have a child. Directors Fengliang Yang and Zhang Yimou tell their story with such elegance and grace. I love the way they used the colorful drapes inside the dye mill. They used it for decoration, cover, symbolism, and at some times, it seems to be another character.
The whole movie is set on a small village in 1920s China. It takes advantage of the great scenery and produces some great vistas and backgrounds. The cinematography is simple but is perfect for the story. This movie and a recent movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, shows us evidence of the power of Chinese cinema.
It is very hard to make a wonderful movie in a country that does not allow free speech. Ju Dou was banned in China because it displayed defiance of the Chinese culture. It showed a woman rebelling against her husband and committing adultery. I thought the directors did a great job of hiding their political message under a luscious love story. Nonetheless, it was still banned in China but was well received in other parts of the globe, including America.
The love scenes and violence are more implied that visual because of Chinese limitations. Chinese filmakers always had difficulty in creating great art because they are not fully free to express themselves. Ju Dou makes up for these by showing wonderful images and insightful symbolism. Ju Dou sometimes goes on a stretch without any dialogue and lets the images tell the story. Zhang Yimou scored an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and a best director award at Cannes with Ju Dou. He followed it up the following year with the equally impressive Raise the Red Lantern. Ju Dou is a visually stunning film and very much well worth the time watching.
Gong Li is just about one of the most beautiful actresses in the world
today. It is hard to believe that she has been acting for 20 years.
This is one of her earlier works, and it is an excellent example of her talent. It is also one of the early films for Yimou Zhang, who also directed Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower. He shows the promise of a great director in this film.
There is not much that is pleasant her. Ju Dou (Gong Li) is bought by an evil man who has beaten two wives to death for not bearing him a son. She is beaten mercilessly and he has constant sex with her to have a son.
The problem is not his wives, but him, and she has a son secretly with his nephew (Baotian Li). It saves her life, but matters continue to get more and more complicated until the final tragedy.
One of the really interesting features of the film is the Chinese funeral ritual.
The film is a great example of the early work of two great talents, but do not think that early means weak, as they were bother strong from the beginning.
Mesmerizing melodrama set in 1920's China about a young woman who is forced to wed an abusive dye mill owner, who tortures her like an animal for not giving him a son, but more importantly, an heir. She decides to indulge in an affair with the nephew of her husband. Enthralling study of passion, sensation and burning for revenge brought to life in an extraordinary fashion which earned the film an Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film of 1990.
When watching Ju Dou it suddenly occurred to me that although Zhang Yimou
known for his political arguments the film seems to breathe through a warm
and loving hope from Tianqing and Ju Dou. The political references and
damnation of the treatment of women resonate but I found myself taking
hope theme and putting it out front. The beauty of the photography is
unmatched, in particular the stunning shot of Tianqing working in the dye
mill with the whole background illuminated with the suns reddened glare
there is the lack of visual plausibility, being the narrow minded baffoon
that I am, the first thought to enter my head was that Ju Dou would never
for Tianqing, look how skinny and ugly the guy is! But the plausibility is
increased once they get it together due to their quality performances,
Li's fragile "wolf" is probably one of the most mesmerising performances
history. It is truly hypnotic, and Li Baotian shows the contradictory
of Tianqing, especially his tortured obedience in front of his "uncle" and
his masculine dependence on Ju Dou that gives the film so much heart,
despite his obvious lack of meat.
What isn't so great is the episodic feel that is helped none by the titles indicating the passage of time. Surely this could have been achieved visually, even on a small budget. Pacing feels a little disjointed, probably because the inciting incident happens quite a long way into the film, but maybe I got that and the act climax confused, note: must watch again.
Small discrepancies aside, my problem is with the narrative. Of course film can do more than to tell a story, but I feel that when you start one you should tell it properly and with skill. Of course, Ju Dou is one Zhang's earliest films and none of his later films that I have seen have suffered from this, but then again they do not portray a claustrophobic feeling so well in streets and houses as well as showing the vastness of the country itself. A visual metaphor for the people being close, feeling each other's pain and joy, with the money, the government for instance, far away, unable, or not wanting to see the plight of the citizens.
And on a final note, the uncle's mean streak and his black heart did not make me feel any less sorry for him in the middle of the film, which although adds a little hostility to Ju Dou, gives us another wonderful character in the film. No one is perfect.
I would highly recommend Ju Dou to all fans of Chinese cinema, especially those who prefer this to the action movies they produce by the bucket load in Hong Kong and are rarely any good unless they star Jet Li, or anyone who has a love of ambience in their movies. This achieves it ten fold.
Now I'm off to see Zhang Yimou's latest, 'The Road Home' in London. High expectations but not quite on the same level as Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love' released here on Friday October 27th. Looking forward to that too.
A good movie makes you feel and this one does that ...the Technicolor is amazing and the story makes you pause and reflect. The story is pretty old boy meet girl and girl is unavailable. No new twists, she is married and her husband is older and cruel (of course). Additionally he is hell bent on making a son and has "gone" through a couple of wives already. However, as this film develops the viewer feels compassion for the the would be lovers. There are places, one of the more pivotal point in the film is where the husband has an accident and how the protagonist reacts. Basically when I finished watching the film I felt quiet-not peaceful just a bit disturbed. The images from the movie continued to play in my head and it just made me wonder about the levels of cruelty people suffer through and place upon others. ten lines is a lot to write...help me end this now, I am starting to wonder if I should have just left it at voting...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
That header, spoke by the sadistic dye mill owner to Ju Dou, as he is torturing and beating her for not popping out his desired heir quickly enough, is the pithiest delineation of the message of this classic. Like his best, Raise The Red Lantern, Yimou repeats the horrors visited upon human property, devoid of rights, and the prisons they live within. He uses naturalistic imagery so well again here. Watch for the two parallel images of red, wet, dyed cloth rolling uncontrollably off of the spindle onto the ground. The first of the pair is where the ill-fated, forbidden romance commences; the last is where Tianbai, the couple's secret son, drowns his father not knowing the truth. Again, the same identical image: it conveys the core of Blood Simple. The forces of their passion mix with the matrix of oppression of their slavery descending their fates into truly Stygian Fire. Watch how slaves cheer themselves up, the temp tells Tian-Qing that his master has bought a new baby machine; he then, smiling, tells him how the last two were beaten to death. "Get ready to hear your new aunt screaming!" This seems like uncaring sadism but, no, actually it is the male slaves way of cheering themselves up in existential contrast to the female slaves who have it much, much worse. Sure enough, when we see Ju Dou in the morning: her body is covered with bruises, her eye blackened, and arms covered with lacerations.
The secret child the mill owner names Tianbai: for goodness and purity. He should have named him Death for that is what he is to everybody in the mill. Ironically, the boy drowns the mill owner in a pool of red dye. Another naturalistic touch by Yimou, you will think of all the slaves he has killed when you see him drowning in the red dye that looks just like blood. After his death you hear the village council's appraisal of Tian-Qing that echoes his master's,"He is not really his son, just an adopted street boy, he is nothing. He must move out of the mill immediately to silence all the gossip. Both of them must block the funeral 49 times to prove their loyalty." The couple doesn't dare tell their son who his real father is, they would be killed. They start a chain reaction of doom by skulking about the landscape in tunnels, caves and fields for their secret sexual trysts. This causes groups of people in the village gathering to share gossip which lights the fuse on Tianbai's rage. Often, the couple is alone together, they glance over their shoulder and there is Tianbai glowering in silent malevolence at them. You can feel his hatred building to the horrific climax.
I hear you, why should I watch such a depressing movie? Like the other slave, it will oddly cheer you up by reminding you of freedoms you don't even notice. These two are like cows or oxen, they have no rights and live in constant fear. While Yimou does not show Tian-Qing getting beaten like Jo Dou, we hear the threat plenty,"Watch what you're doing with that or see what happens!" Tian-Qing is skinny as a rail, being worked to death. Even after a night's beating, Ju Dou is berated for not showing up quickly enough to work,"I didn't buy a freeloader!" The movie features the usual features of a Zhang Yimou movie: great acting, writing, directing and stunningly beautiful photography. Even the tiny child is an excellent actor; he rarely speaks but believe me, you know what he is feeling inside. The man who made the mistake of mocking his parents finds out as Tianbai chases him for blocks with a knife. Like Raise The Red Lantern, Yimou wants you to see what greed does to human beings. The grasping, stingy nature of the mill owner, who pays the temp two dollars for days of work. Tian-qing hears this all day,"What took you so long? That horse looks much thinner, is that all the money?"
He cares only for money, all other human lives have been reduced to instrumentalities for his pocketbook's aggrandizement. This is the core of Zhang Yimou, you will see it also in Curse Of The Golden Flower with the rich, stunning, ostentatious opulence is equaled only by the moral depravity of the denizens of the palace. An excellent movie, not exactly uplifting, but it has much to say about greed and the monsters it makes out of men. An Excellent Movie. Q.E.D.
"Not A Pleasant Thing To Live In Fear Is It? That's What It Is To Be A Slave." Roy Batty From Blade Runner
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Readers send me recommendations of films that use architecture
cinematically. Water, smoke, fire (fireworks), are the usual
supplements to built space. To that I've recently added cloth, based on
a reviewing of "Brother Sun." This was recommended.
Its an early, intimate film from the man who later brought us epics that sometimes work with space: flying leaves, smoke, fabric, knives. He's quite committed to cinematic architecture, space. I appreciate it. In this case, the project is small, with few aspirations. The story is a familiar one (two men, a woman and a shared child), and really quite ordinary except that the acting is good. The real center of this is the house.
Its a combination of residence for the two men and woman, and a business where the three dye fabric and hang it in long bolts to dry. The place is wonderfully, gently photographed in places, and that is to be expected. The way the thing is staged is very typical of Chinese films of the era: every shot is carefully arranged with the surrounding space emphasized with color, planes and light. Its not dynamic, but very effective. I include this in my list of "folding' effects that bring the viewer into the world of the film. Making space, always impinges on our space.
But there's another effect at work here. I like it when this filmmaker uses the environment as indication. This is also typically Chinese, but usually has to do with political events or natural disasters, of some such. Here, when the cousin and virgin wife do have their first sex, a long newly strip of fabric, perhaps 35 feet long, makes a waterfall of red collapse into a pool of red dye. Its a remarkably powerful image capturing blood, a sort of gravity of sex (both senses), indeed an inevitability. Its the entire tragedy in one scene, the human copulation just off screen.
Later, this pool would swallow both the men, one after another. The transgressor will end up literally in this pool of red, with the very same inevitable, continuing drape falling over him. Its not the cleverest or most subtle working of architectural space into cloth and thence into nearly a character, one that indicates and has agency, both as the force that starts the tragedy and ends it.
Its worth it. See it before you see that later epic excesses.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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