Ju Dou

Director: Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou was one of the leading lights of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese directors whose work made a great impact in the West during the 1980s and ’90s. Perhaps his finest film, Ju Dou is a sumptuous yet emotionally draining melodrama set in a remote Chinese village of the 1920s. An impotent, sadistic old man mistreats his wife, Ju Dou (Gong Li), because she fails to provide a son. When Ju Dou falls in love with her husband’s young employee and becomes pregnant, the child is at first passed off as the husband’s son. As the lovers brazenly flaunt their affair, the vengeful cuckold turns the child against its parents. Zhang’s film has the dark, searing power of Greek tragedy. It presents a vision of a natural and social landscape which looks like paradise but is actually a kind of hell on earth. The film was banned in China, and it’s tempting to read it as a political parable, with the husband representing the old order of Maoism and the hate-filled boy as a symbol of the Red Guard. In any event, Ju Dou looks like a masterpiece compared to a more recent Zhang film such as Not One Less.
Japan-China, 1990. English subtitles. Colour. 94 mins.

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