Monday Movie: Ju Dou, by David Bax
Ju Dou (1990) is Zhang Yimou’s second film (depending on which ones you count) and his second collaboration with Gong Li. But it is the movie that introduced him to American cinephiles, being the first of the three of his films that would go on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars (he’d follow up with his second the next year for the incomparable Raise the Red Lantern and then again over a decade later for Hero). It’s no surprise Zhang has been thus recognized so often; he makes the kind of movies the Academy loves, sweeping historical melodramas that are lush and beautiful. It helps that Ju Dou is one of the Chinese films printed via the Technicolor dye process after some of the company’s equipment was purchased by a Beijing lab.
Coincidentally, Ju Dou actually takes place in a different kind of dye operation, a textile mill in the early 1900s Chinese countryside. The mill is owned and more or less singlehandedly operated by Jin-shan, a well respected elder in the community. Jin-shan buys himself a young, new wife, Ju Dou (Gong), and then proceeds to abuse her repeatedly for not giving him a son. Eventually, she does give birth to a boy but what we know and Jin-shan doesn’t is that the real father is Jin-shan’s nephew, Tian-qing (Li Baotian). The secrets and their fallout unfold over the course of years, even after Jin-shan dies and the baby turns into an increasingly aware and capable child.
Ju Dou was banned in China upon its release (that only lasted a couple of years, though). As often seems to be the case with censorship of movies in China, it wasn’t the scandalous subject matter but the political content that got the film blacklisted. With its depiction of an economic pillar like Jin-shan as unflinchingly cruel and oppressive, Ju Dou not only condemns him but also the society that values him as a success. When a face-off with Jin-shan’s funeral procession clearly recalls the famous Tiananmen Square protest (which had happened only one year before the film’s release), the parallels may have been too close for the powers that be to ignore.
Viewed through the lens of more recent discourse, though, it’s hard to deny that Ju Dou is also a feminist film. Ju Dou the character possesses the story’s true incendiary resilience and freedom of thought. Her affair with Tian-qing starts with him violating her privacy, spying on her while she’s bathing. She and Zhang then direct Tian-qing’s eyes and those of the audience to the bruises and wounds of her ongoing domestic abuse. It’s a disruption of the male gaze that’s as upsetting to look at as most of the rest of Ju Dou is gorgeous.