- Like a Greek tragedy 12/29/2002 12:00:00 AM by DeeNine-2
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!)
- Zhang YiMou's masterpiece 2/24/2001 12:00:00 AM by Preston-10
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.
- Amazing film 1/30/2005 12:00:00 AM by jackei-1
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...
- A strange one to judge 10/24/2000 12:00:00 AM by jeff_stryker
When watching Ju Dou it suddenly occurred to me that although Zhang Yimou is 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 this 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 but 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 go 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, Gong Li's fragile "wolf" is probably one of the most mesmerising performances in history. It is truly hypnotic, and Li Baotian shows the contradictory nature 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.
- Chinese patriarchal madness 7/29/2007 12:00:00 AM by lastliberal
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.