The Cultural Revolution in China was a sociopolitical movement spearheaded by Mao Tse-tung that aimed to purge all levels of Chinese society of any influences of capitalism and the bourgeois mentality. As with many movements driven almost solely by idealism, the Cultural Revolution devastated China, resulting in mass executions and large exoduses of urban intellectual youth to the countryside. The “Fifth Generation,” a group of filmmakers who would emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution, would create some of the most renowned Chinese films ever made. Their work would bear the imprints of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in one way or another, and perhaps none more so that Zhang Yimou.
Zhang Yimou had come from a family loyal to Chiang Kai-shek, and Zhang’s own uncle and an elder brother would follow Chiang to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist forces. Zhang would himself would work as a laborer on a farm and in a textile factory, while still pursuing photography in his spare time until he was able to attend the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, despite being technically too old. He would come into prominence with his first feature, Red Sorghum, which, with its plot about a group of workers taking over a distillery when the owner dies, could have easily been seen as a propaganda piece for the Communist regime, though it also displays considerable artistry.
Ju Dou, on the other hand, is a startlingly different work, seemingly devoid of obvious political allegory. It is a fairly simple narrative about a young man, Tianqing (Li Biaotian), and Ju Dou (Gong Li), the wife of his adoptive uncle Jinshan (Li Wei), and the affair they start because of Jinshan’s abusive behavior towards Ju Dou. The story is like a Greek tragedy in terms of how visceral the betrayal and motivations for revenge are. In fact, the original novel by Liu Heng was even more Oedipal since Jinshan is Tianqing’s uncle by blood rather than his adoptive uncle. (Zhang and his co-director Yang Fengliang would change this aspect, perhaps to make the film more palatable to the censors.)
To match the film’s already heightened emotional narrative, the visuals and filmmaking are equally vibrant and visceral. Jinshan dyes fabrics for a living, and this gave Zhang ample opportunity to flood the screen with the deepest colors, red being a predominant one. Ju Dou is also filmed with the most beautiful natural light, making Gong Li look positively angelic in some shots or making Jinshan look positively demonic in others. Zhang would be known for stunning visuals in later films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, but Ju Dou is arguably the purest in terms of how well the look of the film would so clearly and properly underline the narrative.
The performances are similarly unrestrained to match the story’s simplicity. Jinshan is cartoonishly evil, and Ju Dou and Tianqing are presented as almost innocent of blame. The actor that best understands this film and its intent is Gong Li. Though Gong Li is a very beautiful woman, she does not use her looks to make her performance stand out in these early films with Zhang. She often dresses down and is downright dowdy. Yet she is able to inspire real passion and sorrow in the audience with her performance. A scene where Tianqing is peeping on Ju Dou is turned on its head by Ju Dou. She knows that Tianqing is looking at her, and she uses this opportunity to show the bruises from the abuse that his uncle has wrought on her. It is a shameful moment for not just Tianqing but the audience as well, since our voyeuristic tendencies were foiled in a powerfully devastating way, and Li sells it beautifully.
If anyone could understand bodies and the abuse they go through from those in power, it would be Zhang and the rest of the Fifth Generation. Scenes such as JInshan’s drowning are as violent as any American movie, though no gunfire or weapons are involved. The passion between Ju Dou and Tianqing is far more intense than the relatively chaste films being produced in China at that time. It was probably for this uncomfortable sensuality that Ju Dou was banned, in addition to its regressive subject material (feudal China far before the Communist Revolution).
Yet Ju Dou could easily have been interpreted as addressing concerns about labor and bodies that the Chinese government was obsessed with. The abuse that Jinshan wreaks on the couple is definitely a condemnation of men in power enabled by a patriarchal system, one that the Communist party tried to dismantle. Past trauma is passed down because of traditional Chinese society when the couple’s son (who believes Jinshan is his real father) becomes responsible for their death. For such a simple yet fiercely told tale, Ju Dou can inspire these interpretations just from the conviction of the filmmaking.
Ultimately, Ju Dou feels like a flashy early work of a seemingly young man’s career although Zhang was 41 when this movie came out. Zhang would surpass himself with subsequent films such as Raise the Red Lantern, which is also visually stunning and similarly claustrophobic. His political observations would become even more astute in To Live and The Story of Qiu Ju. Yet Ju Dou is still the most thrillingly entertaining and inspiring of Zhang’s films, and absolutely essential in understanding the artistic trajectory of his career.