Ju Dou

Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Wei. (1990, 95 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 10, 1991

Delirious melodrama, Chinese style. What a mix. I'm not sure what the Chinese reference points for this movie are. But in America they'd be Douglas Sirk and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Nominated for an Academy Award in the U.S. for Best Foreign Film, it was banned in its own country of China. The Chinese government even tried to have it withdrawn from consideration for an Oscar. Why? For the wife abuse and the adultery? For the unflattering portrait of rural life and the downcast ending? Set in China of the 1920s (a safe, pre-revolutionary time) the movie tells the story of a woman named Ju Dou (Gong Li). She is the third wife of Jinshan (Li Wei), an old unpleasant owner of a dye factory. He's a wife beater who also desperately longs for a male heir. Tianquig (Li Baotian) is his adopted nephew who lives and works with the couple at the dye factory. Tianquig is both repelled by the wife abuse and attracted to Ju Dou who encourages Tianquig's passions and when Jinshan goes away on business, the two consummate the affair. This being a good melodrama she, of course, immediately becomes pregnant and everyone acts like the child is Jinshan's. To compound matters, her husband is hurt in an accident and paralyzed from the waist down. The lovers now flaunt their illicit relationship in front of the old man. Then there's the growing child who's none too wild about either of these dads. But these are just the plot rudiments. What's really fascinating are the frills; the saturated colors that stem from the dye factory setting but serve as emotional filters and coding, the symbolic churning of the primitive machinery that becomes a truly poetic meta-language, the clucking relatives and townspeople who force social compliance with their disapproval. Douglas Sirk would have really loved this movie. Ju Dou is a juicy and stylish potboiler that keeps the pilots turned on full blast.

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