China (1990) Dirs. Zhang Yimou & Yang Fengliang
We reap what we sow. If you kick a dog long enough it will bite you back. You deserve to be bitten. Once the tables are turned, the dog must learn it to stop biting. Humility and a change in attitude is required by both or the consequences will be tragic for everyone.
Yang Jinshan (Li Wei) is a rancorous old man who runs a fabric dye mill in rural China. His adoptive nephew Yang Tianqing (Li Baotian) returns from selling his uncle’s silk learning Jinshan has married for a third time. His recently purchased bride Ju Dou (Gong Li) is much younger than him; Jinshan longs for a son to carry on his family bloodline, having beaten his previous two wives to death for failing to provide an heir.
Tianqing becomes enamoured with Ju Dou and she is aware of this. After also subject to beatings from Jinshan, Ju-Dou and Tianqing have an affair resulting in a pregnancy and later a son, which Ju Dou pretends is her husband’s. Age catches up with Jinshan and he soon loses the use of his legs, giving Ju Dou the chance to have her revenge and flaunt her love child in Jinshan’s face.
A rare co-directing gig for Zhang Yimou, Ju Dou is his third film and third collaboration with his future lover Gong Li, yet the first Chinese film to earn a Best Foreign Language nomination at the Oscars. The story is based on the 1987 novel Fuxi, Fuxi by Liu Heng, itself an award winning work, but that didn’t stop the Chinese Censorship Board banning this film adaptation until 1992.
For a film that runs just under 90-minutes, the plot seems straightforward but is in fact rather complex, not because of the basic premise but due to the diegesis in which this tale takes place. It questions where the line is between fairness and morality, judgement and understanding, tradition and circumstance, the answer apparently being “when it all ends in tragedy”.
Like her predecessors, Ju Dou suffers for not conceiving a child, though the truth is the old man is impotent. The village doctor gives him a virility potion hinting at why Jinshan doesn’t see the fault as his. Duty is a huge part of Asian culture, explaining why Ju Dou doesn’t run away and would rather die than live with Jinshan. Tianqing is also filial to Jinshan despite not being treated like a real son by him from not being blood related.
Having baby Tianbai doesn’t make Jinshan mellow, instead it brings out the frustration in Tainqing in not being able to raise his own son or announce him as such, since infidelity is a social taboo. Even with Jinshan knowing the truth, the charade of Tianbai being his son is maintained in public, at home the child is only knows Tianqing as his father and his parents enjoy tormenting Jinshan with this fact.
Until Tianbai is a toddler that is and Jinshan reveals all, which Ju Dou decides to uphold to save confusion and tell Tianbai when he is older. Fortune almost smiles on Ju Dou when Jinshan – now confined to a barrel on wheels – drowns in the dye pool; sadly, happy days are far from ahead thanks to the austere and unyielding village traditions regarding death of a husband that must be observed .
Cruel irony doesn’t even cover the twist fate throws at our doomed lovers, making them victims of circumstance, both literally and laterally. From a modern perspective and dare I add a western one, nothing about this whole set up is particularly acceptable – morally the idea women are commodities to sell into marriage is reprehensible, especially to a man guilty of murder!
Post Jinshan’s death, things aren’t better and viewer frustration and sympathy for them will hit a new high. On the surface, it looks to be a case of “how much more do they have to go through?” when in an ideal and more progressive world, they shouldn’t have to. But this isn’t the world they live in and the story painfully exposes the stifling effect of small town mentality that refuses to accept the dawn of a new era.
It is also a balanced story that shows the consequences of karma are two-fold and no matter how justified you might feel you are in meting out vengeance when you have the upper hand. Ju Duo in particular undergoes a personality change once Jinshan is at her mercy; it is as if she knows that being trapped by social convention means she can’t be truly free, so someone has to pay for that.
Zhang Yimou was still a nascent filmmaker at this point but shows enough understanding of the medium to know when to let the story speak and when to let the visuals underline the meaning of the moment. Red cloth features heavily, symbolising temptation, sin, and of course blood; In the early scenes when Ju Duo first appears, the screen is deluged with overexposed yellow and orange hues, highlighting the radiance she brings to the dour lives at the mill.
But this is as advanced as the film’s production values get, the budget probably closer to zero than we might want to assume but it gives it an earthy quality, enhancing the bleak bucolic atmosphere and loveless existence Ju Dou experiences. Gong Li puts her trust into Yimou’s hands to guide her into making Ju Dou a compelling character, whether she is a sympathetic victim, or her own worst enemy in her spiteful schadenfreude-esque revenge campaign against Jinshan.
Despite being a modest looking affair, Ju Dou is an emotionally provocative and rather blunt allegory about a country caught between contrasting social ideals and the people who suffer because of them. It is deliberately divisive in showing how the middle ground does not always bring about a happy resolve but offers plenty of ironic arguments for not upsetting the status quo.