“Ju Dou” - Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang (1990)

Ju Dou (1990), Zhang Yimou’s third directorial outing, is, to my mind, not only his breakthrough film but also a work that ranks at the top of his cinematic oeuvre.  Although the film,  like the preceding Codename: Cougar (Daihao Meizhoubao, 1989), is listed as co-directed by both Zhang and Yang Fenglian, this work has the earmarks of Zhang’s strikingly expressionistic  visual artistry.  This film was also the third of what would be seven successive Zhang productions that starring his personal and artistic partner at the time, Gong Li.

The film’s story concerns a narrative theme of universal interest, but it was presumably one rarely touched upon (at least up to that time) in the conservative Chinese social atmosphere: that of illicit sexual passions in a provincial town.  As such, although the film was immediately hailed abroad and was nominated for a US Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film (1990), it was initially banned for several years in China. 

The plot structure is essentially a melodrama that goes through the four conventional phases:
  • Setup of conflict and issue that must be resolved or goal achieved
  • Achievement of an initial goal
  • Complications and setbacks after obstacles appear or after adversaries make adjustments
  • Resolution (either goal achievement or failure)

1. Setup of conflict
The film is set in the early 20th century and opens with Yang Tianqing, a “nearly 40-years-old” nephew of an elderly textile dyer, Yang Jinshan, returning to the uncle’s dye mill from a three-month trip selling the mill’s products in other cities.  He learns that while he was away his uncle has bought himself a new wife, named Ju Dou.  This is the way it was traditionally done -- a man had to have enough money to be able to buy a wife, and Tianqing, who works as a humble servant for his uncle Jinshan, is too poor to be able to afford a wife.  Jinshan and Ju Dou live upstairs in the mill, while Tianqing occupies a downstairs room.    The stingy Jinshan insists that all the drudgery-filled millwork must be performed by just the three of them quartered at the mill, without assistance from any paid workers.

It is soon evident that Jinshan is not only a stingy skinflint, but also a perverted sadist who is said to have tortured his two previous wives to death for not providing him with a son to continue the family name.  With the beautiful young Ju Dou he continues his vile domestic ways, and he is seen placing a saddle over her prostrate torso so that he can “ride” and whip her as if she were a beast.  “If I buy a beast, can I not ride or beat it at my pleasure?,” he asks her rhetorically.  At night the timid Tianqing hears Ju Dou’s tormented moans from Jinshan’s molestations, but he is powerless to intervene.  He can’t get the luscious beauty out of his mind, though, and he can’t keep himself from spying on her through a peephole while she is bathing. 

2. Ju Dou and Tianqing
One day after returning from another trip to buy materials for the mill, Tianqing encounters Ju Dou on the road and shows concern for the scars he sees on her face and arms.  Ju Dou tries to dismiss his concerns, but she also craves sympathy suffering though an unbearable life with Jinshan.  After accidentally discovering Tianqing’s peephole, she realizes that her personal bathing has an admiring audience, and she boldly exposes her bruised backside to him the next time she bathes.  Going further, she reaches out to him when they are working alone together in the mill and plaintively complains about her miserable condition, explaining that she has no hope of avoiding the fate of the two previous wives since Jinshan is sexually impotent and she will inevitably also be accused of failing to produce a male heir.

Soon, when Jinshan is away from the mill for a few days attending to the care of his sick donkey, Ju Dou makes the decisive move and approaches Tianqing lustfully, offering herself to her timid admirer.  They begin a torrid love affair, and not long afterwards Ju Dou finds herself pregnant.   In due course the baby, named Tianbai, is born, and Jinshan, apparently ignorant of basic biological facts, assumes that he is the father of Ju Dou’s child. 

3.  Tianbai and Jinshan
Ju Dou and Tianqing continue their affair in secret, but soon an unexpected event changes their circumstances dramatically.  While out on the road one day, Jinshan suffers an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.  With Jinshan now helplessly dependent, Ju Dou and Tianqing have the power to operate more freely, at least within the confines and behind the closed doors of the mill.  They now openly reveal to Jinshan their passionate love affair and the fact that Tianbai is in fact the son of Tianqing.  In public, though, Ju Dou and Tianqing dutifully attend to the crippled Jinshan, who is now almost their prisoner and confined to a wheeled basket.  Presumably to avoid losing face, Jinshan remains silent in public about his situation, but one can see that he is sullenly bent on revenge.  Throughout this section of the film, the viewer sees more and more evidence of the suffocating Confucian pressures of conservative village society.  Ju Dou must still appear in public to be the dedicated selfless wife of the loathsome Jinshan, whose “son” is the only legal male heir to the extended Yang clan.  So later when she misses her monthly period, she panics, knowing that another pregnancy would be disastrously received by the nosey townspeople.  To avert that possibility, she seeks out purgative home remedies and treatments, which turn out to be torturously painful and wind up leaving her infertile.

Meanwhile as time passes, Jinshan makes several unsuccessful attempts to kill Tianbai in revenge, but he changes his mind when he joyfully discovers that the now three-year-old boy mistakenly thinks that Jinshan is his father.  Now instead of wanting to punish Ju Dou by killing the child, he strives to claim the lad as his own and alienate him from his mother.  Ju Dou detests Jinshan and would like to be free from him, but she and Tianqing are still prisoners of the restrictive Chinese social customs that require them to remain attendant to the old man.

4.  Downfall
While Ju Dou and Tianqing are out one day, Tianbai accidentally causes Jinshan’s wheeled cart to tumble into the dyeing vat, and the boy watches mirthfully while Jinshan thrashes about in the water and finally drowns. The ensuing funeral for Jinshan follows strict traditional customs and is filled with absurd rituals that compel Ju Dou to engage in extravagant public acts of grieving.  Afterwards, Tianqing is ordered by the family elders to cease living at the mill, since it is now an abode where only a widow resides.  Under these conditions the secret trysts between Ju Dou and Tianqing become extremely  difficult to arrange, and there are long periods when the two lovers are apart.

There is now a gap indicating a further passage of about seven years, and Tianbai has grown to be a sullen and insubordinate teenager.  When he overhears some meddlesome villagers gossip naughtily about Ju Dou and Tianqing, the obstreperous boy rushes out to bash Tianqing.  Later the two lovers have what they fear may be their last tryst down in the mill’s dusty storage cellar.  After some blissful moments together, they both pass out from exhaustion and lack of oxygen [1].  Tianbai eventually discovers the two prostrate lovers in the cellar and proceeds to kill his own father, while Ju Dou helplessly watches in aguish.  The final shots of the film show Ju Dou setting fire to the dye mill that has long been her prison.  She watches passively as the flames gradually surround her and engulf the mill.

With such a melodramatic plot, you may wonder why I hold this film in such high esteem.  There are several answers to be given on this score, but first I will mention the film’s extraordinary visual presentation.  While the subject matter suggests the dark, somber overtones of film noir, Zhang uses the story’s context of bright color cloth production to drape the film in a dramatic spectrum of hues that imbue the film with a pervasive current of vitality.  The colors here play a corresponding, though not exactly equivalent, role that dark shade and darkness play in more conventional films noir.  Such expressionistic use of coloring had been seen in 1950s Hollywood films with Technicolor, and it is no accident that Ju Dou has similar color aesthetics.  Technicolor Corporation’s elaborate three-strip coloring process had gone out of favor in the 1970s, and their dye transfer plants were sold off, with one of them eventually being shipped to Beijing and available for Zhang’s use.  So if you are fortunate enough to see Ju Dou at a theatrical screening, you will probably find the visual experience unforgettable. 

Unfortunately, existing available DVDs of Ju Dou are, at least to my knowledge, miserable failures as  transfers of the original film prints to the digital medium. The lush colors of the original film are often washed out and faded in the DVD versions, and the contrast range is so reduced, that darker portions of the image are often lost in blackness.  In addition the frames of DVD versions appear to have been severely cropped and sometimes cut off meaningful imagery.  Nevertheless even if you see one of these visually diminished DVD versions, the film is so vibrant that you may still get a feeling for what the original film was like.

Thematically, Ju Dou has other interesting undercurrents.  Thinking purely about the narrative in the abstract, the story of the film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) or perhaps Blood Simple (1984), might come to mind.  Here we have the story of a lustful wife of an elderly husband who plunges into a passionate extra-marital affair with a younger man – and then the two of them scheme to get rid of the husband.  But the psychological flavor of Ju Dou is very different from The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose sense of ominous moral guilt was always lurking in the background. In Ju Dou, in contrast, our empathy is with the lovers all the way, and the elderly husband has no redeeming virtues.  Ju Dou, herself, is seen in this setting as cast by society into the role of a paid-for piece of furniture or a pack animal, basically a slave for whom a coercive marriage vow couldn’t really have had any meaning.  Tianqing, for his part, is seen as a basically decent person who strives to do the right thing.  Both of them seem intrinsically innocent and simply trying to make their way in a world that has set artificial rules that are often stacked against the powerless.  In this connection, it might be useful to quote Sheldon H. Lu’s observation that Zhang Yimou’s films are frequently devoted to
". . . the lovable, almost stupid determination of a humble, honest person trying to do the right thing.  That such a stubborn do-gooder appeals to the audience is a sign of strong residual moral seriousness in the Chinese popular consciousness.  This seems to be . . . Zhang Yimou’s moral vision of China” [2]
I am not suggesting here that Zhang is morally endorsing the extra-marital relationships shown in Ju Dou, but there is nevertheless a clear sympathy expressed for the authentic individual feelings of the protagonists in Ju Dou.  And this sympathy for genuine feelings and human interaction is somewhat different from the conventional Communist celebration of the moral virtues of the working class.  In those traditional Communist panegyrics, the working class is usually visualized in the abstract, as a heroic prototype.  In contrast to those kinds of Communist government sponsored propaganda efforts, Zhang’s films – at least after his more orthodoxly-tinged Red Sorghum (1987) – feature protagonists who are simple, straightforward individuals, capable of personalized and heart-felt passions and compassion.

Moreover, this soulful combination of compassion and passion is stunningly embodied by Gong Li, in the  title role.  I have remarked on the mystique of Gong Li before – see my comments concerning her performances in Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994), and Shanghai Triad (1995).  There is a natural grace to her movements that conveys both passion and innocence, both openness and commitment,  at the same time. And this is accomplished in natural social contexts of ordinary Chinese society. This is a rare kind of beauty that is not captured in a still photograph.  You need to see her perform in action, in those ordinary but dramatic contexts in which her role is cast.

This leads to the implicit notion underlying the film’s narrative that a society grounded on authentic and compassion-based intuition is superior to one governed by artificial and unbreakable rules that have lost all touch with human reality.  It is perhaps this implicit social judgement in the background of the film that unnerved the Chinese authorities more than any explicit references to individual sexual passion in Ju Dou.  The film seems to ask: if the conservative Confucian-based rules of Chinese society are there to preserve social stability and order, then why does this social structure permit, and even endorse, the kind of perfidy committed by the sadistic Yang Jinshan, or Tianbai, for that matter?

Actually, this brings me to the separate thematic subject of the character of Ju Dou’s son, Tianbai.  There is something horrifying and unnatural about this boy.  In his abrupt, brutish physical movements, he conveys an injurious malevolence that is the very opposite of the heartfelt humanity presented by Ju Dou and Tianqing.  Is there a symbolic significance to his character?  He is the biological offspring of Ju Dou and Tianqing and was raised by Ju Dou, but he hasn’t inherited their virtues.  What accounts for his cold-blooded, reptilian savagery?  Perhaps while Ju Dou and Tianqing were busy working in the dye mill, he was manipulated and twisted by the malicious Jinshan, who was idly resident in the dwelling and free to twist the boy in the wrong direction.  Some commentators have suggested that Tianbai represents the brutality of the Cultural Revolution’s youthful Red Guards, or more generally the ruthlessness of the darker aspects of Maoism.  But I think that his visage is even more visceral and primitive than those social phenomena.  To me he represents a dark animal force that is always present in any social surroundings.  It is the ever-present dark savagery of the carnivore that civilized society must seek to tame.

Zhang Yimou would later venture more overtly into the film noir genre with works like Shanghai Triad and A Simple Noodle Story (aka A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, 2009), films with moods and feelings distinctly different from the one presently under discussion.  In Ju Dou there is a mixture of moods: in addition to the dark external atmosphere of a noirish environment, there is the interior, personal world of individual striving.  The film ends that story on a note of defeat and destruction.  But there is also dark beauty in this film, even in these lurid surroundings.  It is that expressionistic undertone of beauty that lingers in the mind long afterwards. 
  1. This is a scene that may evoke memories of Wu Tianming’s film Old Well (1986), which incidentally featured an award-winning acting performance by Zhang Yimou!
  2. Lu, Sheldon H. (2005),“Chinese Film Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century”, Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, Sheldon H. Lu & Emilie Yueh-Yu Yeh (eds.), University of Hawaii Press, pp. 123-24.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your review is beyond brilliance and the film remains one of my favourites!
An apt write-up of this outstanding film.