From its opening moments, one might expect Ju Dou to be a typically prosaic peasant melodrama, full of farm girls, country bumpkins, and rich misers who get their comeuppance. Instead -- to the credit of director Zhang Yimou (of 1988's acclaimed Red Sorghum) -- Ju Douis an odd and artful cinematic tapestry, shot through with threats of voyeurism, adultery, incest, and parricide.
Ju Dou is the pretty wife of miser Jin Shan, a tyrant whose abuse has already killed off two previous women. Jin's great wish is to father a child to whom he can leave his wealth; unable to do so, he lashes out at his new bride. This horrifies Tian Qing, the simple-but-goodhearted nephew who slaves at his uncle's dye factory by day, and peeps at his young aunt's bathing habits by night.
Discovering Tian Qing's peephole, Ju Dou waits for the bumpkin to act on his desires, and finally seduces him herself. When Ju Dou becomes pregnant, the two are forced to pretend that the child is Jin's; this deceit continues until Jin Shan is brought down by a paralyzing stroke. Bringing their passion out of hiding, the lovers cavort before the helpless old man. But in their innocence, they neglect their child, who watches the taboo love between his mother and "brother." As Tian Bai grows into an adolescent with a remarkable resemblance to "Puggsley" of the Addams Family, this proves to be the doom of all.
Like a certain American director, Zhang is obsessed with the horrors hovering just beneath the surface of the normal. His characters play out a twisted domestic charade, yet we are led to realize that it is not they who are weird -- life itself is strange when looked at too closely. The film's cinematography, which pans across cascades of brilliantly dyed cloth and too-perfect pastoral landscapes, lends Ju Dou a dreamy, druggy texture; Zhang's spectrum leans toward the color red, which he imbues with the power of fertility and death. Scarlet banners, vats of roiling crimson dye, and the angry vermilion of blood and flame stand out as the film's brightest sources of light. The actors struggle to remain vivid against a bold cinematic backdrop, and most succeed. Gong Li's fiery performance as Ju Dou is especially worth watching.
But perhaps the film's greatest asset is its refreshingly disturbing quality -- the way it knocks preconceptions of Chinese filmmaking head-over-backside. Unlike the kiss-and-shoot genre films of Hong Kong, Ju Dou has no "Hollywood on the Yangtze" pretensions. The pretensions it does have are at once both higher and smaller: It's not hard to imagine that the film's rippling red banners are instead crushed blue velvet, or that Twin Peak's Josie Packard might suddenly pop by for a cup of soy sauce. Ju Dou is the kind of film that a young David Lynch might have been proud to make, had he been born a few degrees east of west.
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