Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Ju Dou (1990)

by on April 25, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue May 1 at 6:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

If you can believe it, FSLC’s ongoing celebration of each consecutive year of the New York Film Festival has already worked its way up to the 1990s.

David Noh for Film Journal International:

Think of the most gorgeously photographed film you’ve ever seen – Sunrise, The Wind, The Devil is a Woman, The Red Shoes, Touch of Evil, Lola Montes, Jules and Jim, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Makioka Sisters, etc.Think, in black-and-white or color, of the cumulative variation of shade and hue, angle and motion, and now add Ju Dou to the list. It happens to be one of the most beatiful films ever made.Yimou’s pure, visceral direction, filled with imagery that is at once both lush and economical, makes this a uniquely striking achievement.
Certain images in Ju Dou implant themselves on the memory with an empathic immediacy that goes far beyond the cliched “picturesquely Oriental” effects of scrolls, screen or, for that matter, many films. The main setting is a dyer’s plant of an indefinable period; yards and yards of cascading ochre, scarlet and orange cotton are the film’s unforgettably leitmotif. Their quick, billowing movement seems to inspire the protagonists’ passion-driven motives and embraces. The actual location was a mansion built during the Ming Dynasty – it is every bit as resonating a presence as any of the characters, and with it Zhang pulls off magisterial effects that equal and often surpass any in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The film moves at a measured pace – not the excruciating retard of many Asian films – but dilatory enough to suggest the passage of time and the characters’ passive complicity in their fates.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

A magnificent melodrama, even more visually sumptuous and emotionally draining than the same director’s earlier Red Sorghum, even though its cruel tale of adultery and revenge constitutes, to some extent, a blatant reworking of themes. This time, it’s set in and around a dyeing workshop in a remote town in the 1920s, where the young wife of the ancient, impotent and sadistic dyer decides to make the old man’s adopted nephew her lover and protector. Even when she finds herself with child, their affair remains a secret; but after the dyer is left partly paralysed by an accident, they brazenly flaunt their love, so that the vengeful cuckold’s only hope is to turn the child against its parents. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that the Chinese authorities virtually dissociated themselves from this Japanese-financed, less-than-rosy picture of a country given over to unfettered sexual desire and murderous hatred. But it’s this vision – expressed through superbly forthright performances, and in images whose stunning colours are sure to stick in the mind – that lends Zhang’s movie the stark, searing power of Greek tragedy. Its dark wit and fiery pace ensure that even the occasional overheated moments carry conviction.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Visually stunning, with ravishing uses of color and beautifully modulated lap dissolves, Ju Dou certainly is the most effective and dramatic Chinese film I have seen in terms of commercial moviemaking, both as spectacle and as story telling. The film is organized around recurrences and rhyme schemes involving both colors (of fabrics and dye vats) and architecture (with the wooden steps leading from the factory up to Jinshan’s bedchamber serving as a pivotal site). The buildings used date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and probably for this reason suggest the feudal period even more than the characters and village customs do. A passionate tragedy with a contemporary social message, Ju Dou can only be understood if we step beyond the confines of our own historical context and think about a culture where even the contemporary spans centuries.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The ending of “Ju Dou” is as lurid and melodramatic as anything conceived by Poe or filmed by Bunuel, and it exhibits justice completely untempered by mercy.
The film appealed to me for two reasons. First, because of its unabashed, lurid melodrama, in which the days are filled with scheming and the nights with passion and violence. Second, because of its visual beauty. When the Technicolor company abandoned its classic three-strip process for reproducing color on film, two of its factories were closed down but the third was packed up and sold to China, and that is why the bright colors in the vats of the textile mill will remind you of a brilliance not seen in Hollywood films since the golden age of the MGM musicals. Not that this story would have been very easily set to music.

Caryn James for The New York Times:

The most dazzling element in ”Ju Dou” is the everyday work of its characters. In a Chinese village in 1920, a beautiful young woman named Ju Dou is married off to a belligerent older man who owns a factory where fabric is dyed. Though this weighty film is about the sins of the fathers, the oppression of women and passion challenging tradition, cheerful-looking banners of ruby, sapphire and topaz-colored cloth are hung to dry in the open air. They fly in the background as perpetual suggestions of the beauty that exists here only in stolen, illicit moments.
Individual scenes jump out in brilliantly conceived moments. Beaten by her impotent husband because she has not borne a son, Ju Dou appeals to the lonely Tian Qing. When she discovers a peephole through which he watches her bathe, she is at first appalled. Later, she uses his voyeurism as a way to display the bruises that cover her body. By Western standards, it is a scene of extraordinary discretion and a mere shade of titillation. But by Chinese standards, both the character and the film are startlingly bold.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

This starkly gorgeous drama is a movie of almost ideogrammatic precision. The power of the image is such that it works on your imagination like a silent movie – it’s as if a ’40s Hollywood noir as been stripped-down and repurified by Thomas Ince or D.W. Griffith. Although the threat of murder hangs over the entire movie, when death finally arrives it is largely unexpected. As highly structured as Ju Dou is there’s a constant flux – no relationship remains constant. Indeed, the movie spins into Oedipal warp-drive.
Although Ju Dou is scarcely psychological by Western standards, the absence of overt historical references make it unusually introspective for a Chinese film. The movie is timeless without seeming abstract. Shooting exteriors, cinematgrapher Gu Chngwei uses a telephoto lens to suggest the stacked perspective of the eternal China. Most of the action, however, is confined to the combination home and dye-works. The building is a network of stairways and corridors constructed around the central courtyard where the dye vats are kept; its austere structure, like that of the film, is festooned with brilliant lengths or rose, turquoise, and yellow cloth.


David Denby for New York Magazine:

Ju Dou is a folktale told with a remarkable degree of psychological realism and a rather shocking acceptance of cruelty. Perhaps because the perversities are right on the surface, I don’t feel as removed from the three characters as I have from other figures in the few precious Chinese films I’ve seen. Ju Dou is abused and lovelorn, but she’s hardly innocent or defenseless. She has a bit of Lady MacBeth in her, seducing Tianqing so she can become pregnant and escape her husband; later she wants to kill the husband (Tianqing doesn’t).
The sexual pond that develops between Ju Dou and Tianqing is strong and long-lasting, and though the movie may be physically prudish by our standards, the sexual emotions are there. Yimou now works with great directness, intimacy, and dramatic power. I loved, for instance, the stunning way he uses the unlikely setting of the dye factory, which has as many corners and hiding places as a palace. Te long, long bolts of cloth that unravel, falling into red dye, may function as a metaphor of the loosing of sexual or violent passions, but the shots are also awesome and beautiful in themselves. This is an intricately designed, marvelously made movie that puts our careless products to shame.



Stuart Klawans for Film Comment:

Ju Dou reached the United States in 1990, at which time the qualities that seemed to impress–and perhaps distract–American viewers were its vibrant color, picturesque sets, and broadstroke approach to character. I can recall walking out of a screening feeling deeply impressed, yet unable to remember much more than bolts of red cloth unfurling across the screen. Looking at the film today, I’m struck instead by the rapidity of the storytelling, the detailed blocking of the actors’ gestures, and above all the intensely confessional tone. The dye mill in which Ju Dou takes place might as well be the Number 8 Textile Factory in Xianyan. Tianqing (Li Baotian), the scrawny, shaven-headed, endlessly humiliated “nephew” of the mill owner, will do nicely as a stand-in for Zhang Yimou. And Gong Li in the title role, as the mill owner’s battered wife? Her relationship with Tianqing is the most confessional element of all. It’s all about hunger–hunger and physical pain.
Knowing that Tianqing has been peeping at her, Ju Dou at last performs a slow strip for him as he watches from his hiding place. He’s prepared (like the audience) for a sexual display. Instead, in a stunning substitution of suffering for eros, Ju Dou reveals her bruises. That becomes the first bond between the characters. The second is food. Both Ju Dou and Tianqing are starving; she first speaks openly, and then makes love with him, during one of the rare moments when they can grab something to eat. Factor in the illicitness of the love affair–not just for the characters, but for Zhang and Gong Li–and the desperate personal need expressed in Ju Dou begins to compete for attention with the political allegory.
Zhang’s extraordinary formal mastery allowed him to contain the flamboyance of both those elements in Ju Dou–the personal and the political.



Lawrence Chua talks to Yimou for BOMB Magazine:

There are no positive role models, no heroes in Ju Dou. There are no moral ethics in the film, you might say. The characters are all very weak and they can even be described as “small people.” It is not a traditional approach. The characters are not noble enough. I’m sure that if Ju Dou extended into contemporary society or the contemporary era, I couldn’t have made the film.
The roles you cast Gong Li in seem to be progressing politically. In Red Sorghum, all she can do is cook food for the male resistance fighters and get martyred in the crossfire.

I treat the ending according to the development of the character’s psychology. Ju Dou has to do something in the end. She cannot go on living like this. The idea of setting the whole factory on fire seems to be meaningful. Her character determines such an action. Comparing her with traditional women, her character has a very challenging quality. For example, she seduces Tian Qing. Ju Dou insists on getting something, and she gets it. Traditionally, she would be considered a very cheap kind of woman. You could say that Ju Dou reacts to the outside pressure and to the environment, which have closer ties to reality. It is different from the character in Red Sorghum who reacts to something more abstract. Her obstacles are also more abstract. In Ju Dou, I wanted to base my character and the story more on reality.
What finally triggers Ju Dou’s rebellion? Why does it take so long?

The Chinese people are always like that. It’s a very long tradition of Chinese civilization. It’s also the result of the lack of confidence in one’s ego. This may appear enigmatic to many Westerners. For them, these are things that one simply cannot stand. But curiously, the Chinese people simply endure everything. This is the result of thousands of years of Confucian education. In the film, if Tian Qing had not been murdered by his child, he might have lived in the same way until he died naturally. He would would stay on as he was, never leaving the house, hiding all the time. You can find people everywhere in China like Tian Qing. They spend their lives hopelessly. However, the murder in the end came as a very cruel shock to Ju Dou, hence her rebellion. This rebellion, in fact, goes directly against the normal behavior of the Chinese. She has to rebel because she is totally disappointed. Her reaction expresses her disappointment and despair.



Lawrence Chua and Yimou continue:

Do you think an American audience can understand this?

I don’t because, basically, ours are two different kinds of cultures, the result of two different societies. I don’t think a Westerner can understand why we can stand all this oppression for our whole lives. For them, it is simply inhuman. Actually, I don’t care too much whether this concept can reach American audiences, because one has to recognize the uniqueness of each culture. They may not understand the metaphysical obstacles of these characters, but I think they can understand the exterior obstructions. For example, the son, Thin Bai: they can understand why Tian Qing has to hide away from other people, why he has to hide away from his own son. For me, this is enough. If they can understand more, that would be fine. If they find it strange and impenetrable, I think this is also normal. The Chinese culture occupies a very weak status internationally, among the world order, so it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to break through all this, so that more people in the world can accept and understand Chinese culture and what made the Chinese people.

Critics of Ju Dou have said that while the style of the film is strong, the actual plot is weak.

What they may mean is that the story is too old. There is nothing new. You can find similarities even in plays by Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill, like Desire Under the Elms. I’m not afraid of that. I don’t care whether a story is old. For me, all stories are old stories. There are no new stories. The most important thing is to be able to convey your own experience and your deep feeling about the story. What I want to do through this old story is to convey a new feeling for the Chinese audience, to stimulate them, so that they can make associations. The job of a filmmaker is to make today’s audience have those associations from what they see on the screen and real life.


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