A story of anguish, tragedy and intense passion.
Ju Dou takes place in the 1920's in a small Chinese city. Yang Jinshan (Li Wei) is the owner of a dye-mill where he employs his nephew Yang Tianqing (Li Baotian). Jinshan is a heartless, unpitying miser who has little sympathy for his nephew. The dye-mill grants Jinshan a reasonable level of affluence, enough so that he has married several times, though none of his wives survived marriage with him for long. His most recent marriage is to Ju Dou (Li Gong), a beautiful young peasant who was too poor to marry a more suitable (and humane) husband. Almost immediately after the marriage Jinshan begins a campaign of brutalization directed against Ju Dou, similar to the abuse which led to the death of his former wives. Jinshan is infertile and greatly desires an heir; he takes out his rage on his wives whom he blames for his lack of children.
Tianqing is drawn to the great beauty of Ju Dou and begins to observe her washing clothes through a secret hole. She discovers Tianqing's peephole one day, but does not confront him. On an occasion when Ju Dou knows Tianqing is watching, she reveals to him her back, covered in bruises received from Jinshan. She thus brings Tianqing into her confidence. As both a measure to escape her pain and create an oasis of happiness for her, she begins an affair with Tianqing. In a scene of unparalled cinematic beauty, Tianqing and Ju Dou make love as a long bolt of blood-red fabric falls past their heads in a stream of rapturous color. As one would expect, Ju Dou shortly becomes pregnant with Tianqing's child. However, she must present the child as Jinshan's, so as not to create a problem. Jinshan later injures himself and becomes confined to a wheelchair-type apparatus. The child, Yang Tianbai (Zheng Jian), is thus raised by Ju Dou and Tianqing. Eventually Tianbai becomes aware of his true father while observing Ju Dou and Tianqing together. One day while Jinshan is alone at the mill with Tianbai, he falls into one of the coloring vats. Tianbai watches his false father drown in a pool of deep red. One is never sure if the child was uncertain what to do, or if intentionally let the old man die, payment for his weakness. As he matures, it becomes more and more obvious that Tianbai is deeply disturbed, possessing no sense of compassion and strong hatred for his father. He eventually drowns his real father in another coloring vat. Ju Dou, her love murdered, sets the mill ablaze. The final shot of the vividly colored cloths aflame, the oranges and reds of the cloth and flame mingling, is exquisite. Passion is the meat of this movie - passion brought Ju Dou and Tianqing together, it moved Tianbai to murder his father and it ended the lives of Ju Dou and Tianbai in a glorious blaze. Passion, embodied so perfectly by the burning, brilliantly colored cloths.
There is no nudity in this film, but I would argue that it contains some of the most powerfully erotic imagery of any movie. This kind of content is most likely what led to the film being banned in mainland China.
Some have suggested that this film is an allegory to political history in China. Jinshan is Mao Zedong, caring nothing for the worker, Tianbai is the Red Guard, ruthlessly persecuting perceived enemies. I don't think it is important whether or not one considers this possibility when watching the film; Ju Dou is a masterpiece of cinema.
Release Year: 1990
Directed by Zhang Yimou
An Interesting Note:
The vibrancy and intensity of the colors in this movie is quite remarkable. This is because, according to the Roger Ebert, the film was shot using Technicolor's old three-strip color film, a variety of film stock now produced only in China. This 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."