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‘Ju Dou’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 22, 1991

The Chinese Oscar nominee, "Ju Dou," is as sumptuously cinematic as it is woefully fatalistic, an Oedipal fable of an abusive husband, his luscious new bride and the adopted nephew who falls in love with her. Directed by Zhang Yimou, a maverick of China's "new wave," this disturbing tragedy is as unexpectedly lurid in its way as "Blue Velvet." Battery, adultery, pyromania, patricide and manslaughter are but a few of its dramatic developments.

It's hardly surprising that once they got a peek at it, the Chinese government attempted to pull it from the Best Foreign Film competition. Though set in rural China in the 1920s, Zhang says, "Ju Dou" depicts current mind-sets that have resulted from thousands of years of Confucian training. His ignoble characters basically endure, but except for the heroine, they don't change.

Ju Dou (Gong Li) seems as fragile as a slip of moon but in truth proves as sturdy as a jade tiger. She is the third wife of the sour Jinshan (Li Wei), an impotent, miserly silk merchant who beat his first two wives to death because they bore him no heirs. When Ju Dou fails to conceive, he tortures her, while his nephew Tianqing (Li Baotian), bewitched by her, listens, horrified, to her screams.

Though Jinshan's abusiveness is sure to inflame feminists, the heroine is a suffragette manque' who inevitably wins some control of her life. That's not to say that Ju Dou is a particularly noble person, as the feudal system is too restrictive to allow her or Tianqing either innocence or dignity. Tianqing, who is too poor to marry, peeps at Ju Dou as she undresses and bathes. Realizing his interest, Ju Dou seduces him while the old man is away on business.

Soon Ju Dou becomes pregnant with her lover's son, but she and Tianqing pretend that the child is Jinshan's. Not long after the christening, Jinshan is crippled from the waist down and must ride around in a barrel with wheels. Too impoverished to take their son and go elsewhere, the lovers continue their dangerous relationship. Unfortunately, the little boy grows into a psychotic teenager, jealous of Tianqing's lusty relationship with Ju Dou.

An ancient fabric-dying mill is the beautiful backdrop for the ugly affairs that transpire. Though Zhang tends to get carried away with his allusions to blood, repeatedly addressing his camera to long skeins of garnet silk and the great red dye vat, the setting is resplendent. Cinematographer Gu Changwei has an artist's eye and Zhang a politician's perspective. The camera captures the prosaic activities of the world outside the mill, the children at play, and Zhang forces us to look at their dismal future.

"Ju Dou" was written by Liu Heng, who based it on his perverse contemporary short story "Fu Xi, Fu Xi." The time and the place were changed for political and aesthetic reasons, but basically it remains a tale of a child's destiny, predetermined not by some mysterious natural force but by his parents' place in a rigid system. To Western eyes it will seem that the postman always rings twice, even in some Chinese backwater.

Copyright The Washington Post

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