Ju Dou


China / 1990 / Mandarin

Directed by Zhang Yimou & Yang Fengliang

With Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Wei

Still from 'Ju Dou'The silk-dyer’s house stands imposingly among the swooping black roofs of an ancient Chinese town. It is 1922. Yang, the silk-dyer, is a middle-aged man, wealthy and established in the community, but who has never sired an heir. Believing he is not the reason for this paucity of family, he forces wife after wife to submit to his abuse. Like kicking a cow who will not produce milk, wife after wife he drives into the ground. This is the way it is going for his new bride, Ju Dou, until unexpectedly, a surrogate son arrives, the dyer’s grown nephew named Tian-qing, whom he had raised years ago. The stage is hastily set for melodrama.

But things progress languidly in the dyer’s mansion. The old man employs people, but also does much of the work himself, his hands black from all the dye. This is rural China, so no one can really relax ever. Tian-qing becomes another one of his employees, probably grateful for work. His uncle derides him, looks down on him as an orphan. By night the old man abuses Ju Dou, also treating her as a beast of burden, but one who is entirely unable to leave. During the day Tian-qing steals away to peer through a hole in the barn door as the young woman, his aunt by marriage, bathes after a long day of work.

Perhaps the young couple take their time, perhaps they are quick; time seems in a curious whirlpool within the confines of the house. Among the tubs of dye and the long silk scarves drying from the high rafters, Ju Dou puts her rough, rural belle’s hands around the hesitant Tian-qing, whose ropey muscles have so far only known menial effort. They carry on a passionate affair, sometimes when the uncle is out of town, sometimes right under his nose, without word getting out in spite of their obvious attraction. They hide together in the powder cellar, in the field, on a haystack, and fantasize about getting away forever. They seem to know better than anyone in the audience that that is impossible, such is the structure that they have been born into. It has its own roles in place for them, and could not accommodate anything else.

Still from 'Ju Dou'Before arriving at the next most obvious plot point, the camera lingers on the lovers’ sweaty bodies, their carnal grip around one another, the light passing through the silk scarves deep and par-blinding tones of blue and yellow, red and orange. And the uncle may well be aware that the son to whom Ju Dou gives birth is not his, but this has been his goal in life, and so accepts the boy. When the old man becomes partially paralyzed by a stroke, this allows the couple to flaunt their love with a certain impunity. What arises is an unusual and somehow functional gang of four – the illicit lovers, their child, and the bed-ridden uncle who wants to murder the boy. He makes several increasingly desperate attempts to do so, until his nephew, newly empowered against the brow-beating old man, confines him to a wheelbarrow. Young love triumphs over an abusive old world, but is nonetheless weakened, riddled with conflict.

Tian-bai, the new son, grows up thinking that Tian-qing is his cousin, of course, and the old man, possibly in his impotent rage, imagines that he can adopt the boy to (much further down the line) turn against his real parents. Until then, Yang’s continuing shadow over the household becomes a grim reminder to Ju Dou and Tian-qing of how they can never complete their love for one another and have a real family. Their son’s alliance with the old man keeps the boy out of their control, distant, unreachable and unreadable.

The dye vats stew menacingly, the silk scarves climbing the timber rafters practically imagine conflagration, and murderous allegiances gnaw the fruit of love and family down to the stone. But the lovers work slowly, making attempts at normality, continuing the business even when they are so rapt in physical desire. They need time to turn loose from their blinders, to crack the fetters they hadn’t realized existed until they tried to make a move. This is perhaps what China’s ‘fifth generation’ films are all about: recognizing not only the imposed limits but also their crippling effect on the individual. The implications of this run far and wide, up and down generations, into the multiple connections between people and their society. What is gone is the acceptance of these norms, but that has left in its wake a great deal of rot and frustration.

In addition to the new and bitter awareness that the film depicts, there is a cathartic splaying of the human body that had, for so long, not been possible in Chinese cinema. Like Wen Jiang’s character in Zhang’s Red Sorghum (1987), Tian-qing is supposed to be a young man, but is already like a tough twist of wheat, hardened by years working in fields. Meanwhile Gong Li, as Ju Dou, is subjected to torment and caresses to a degree that feels far beyond what had previously come before. The character brings out her frustrations onto the canvas of her own body, and onto the eroticism with which she holds Tian-qing.

Still from 'Ju Dou'Ju Dou is an affecting tragedy because it is less about people oppressed by the external strictures of tradition than it is about them being bound up in their own strictures, unable to rise above them even when they finally have the freedom to do so. This pops out metaphorically when the uncle finally does die. Tian-qing and Ju Dou are required by tradition to run, screaming and tear-stained, towards his funeral procession and throw themselves on the ground before it forty-nine times. Locked into an age-old repetition, it seems as though their trial will never end. But eventually the procession advances out of sight, and the two find themselves lying in the road, bruised, dirty, and alone together once again.

Even with the sprawling house to themselves, they must keep up the appearance of a filial connection, most importantly to young Tian-bai, and secondly to the other villagers. While they have practiced this masquerade for years without much trouble, its crushing weight has sublimated itself, insidiously and secretly, into the very core of their relationship. The tragedy of being forced to fool others for such a long and involved time is that they become able to deceive themselves just as fluently, without even recognizing it. Their desire for a normal family, which they have suppressed in order to carry out their affair, bogs them down, does not let go. It grows a dissatisfaction with their furtive attachment to  one another. Tian-bai is their son, but he can never entirely be that to them. The paradox between their love and their innate need for normality is what ultimately destroys the possibility of reconciliation with the boy, and the formation of a family as they know it.

The film is set in 1922, perhaps only for the same reason why New Year Sacrifice (1956) is set in a pre-revolutionary time; to begin with the safe assumption that the events shown in the film are ones that could have only happened “in those days”, and not now. Of course, much had changed by the time the ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers came about in the mid-1980s. Zhang, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang had an arsenal of social commentary that passed into acceptability since it was so often cradled in benign historical settings and fine-art exercises in composition.

Still from 'Ju Dou'With the small group of the Fifth Generation, one is immediately faced with a few glaring characteristics: simple, allegorical storytelling; a new and sophisticated emphasis on cinematography; a preoccupation with color (Ju Dou tops the rest – we figuratively, and the characters literally, are drowning in colors); and, seemingly, a concerted pandering to international festival audiences. It may be hard to take a film like Ju Dou very seriously, but it is important to keep in mind the mainstream success that the Fifth Generation had already received by the time it came out. Those directors were among the first film school graduates to make movies in China in many years. They came from privileged backgrounds, and so had suffered under rural re-education when growing up. The resuscitation of Chinese cinema that took place in the 1980s shows these directors’ preoccupations with rural life, with poverty, the plight of women and the lives of ethnic minorities.

There is an attempt either to preserve or recreate the deep involvement of colors in film, something that predates the earliest Technicolor experiments, something from before the assignation of emotions to shades. Color, values, motivation are bound up together. The palette is so smooth and translucent, the strokes so broad, that they can be read in any number of ways. They invite immersion rather than focus. A spray of red silk cast to Ju Dou’s belly is a viscera eruption; the hay-gold light, seemingly projected from another time, surrounds the couple’s impregnable fortress of illusion.

Perhaps there is a buried criticism of China’s one-child policy here, but if so it is seriously buried, in a time and a place entirely oblique to the urban and contemporary. To be sure, Ju Dou and Tian-qing cannot have a child together once the uncle has faded from the picture. Traditional values keep them locked in a standstill, two salt pillars that gradually get worn down by the wind. At the same time, though, it is difficult to internalize why that is. The film spends so much time sculpting a hermetic world in the mansion, and so much time depicting the couple’s amour fou, that they seem almost altogether broken off from those outside pressures.

Still from 'Ju Dou'There is, nonetheless a murderous Other within their bubble, between them, created by them, who hates everything they do. Their son, shock troop of a new order, nemesis of feeling, will not be suppressed inside the house. He signals the end of a terrible merchant class, but also the end of love, being ironically a product of both. He exists to cast both tradition and individual desire down into the vortex where all dyes coalesce to form black.


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