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Ju Dou
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by Jay Seaver

"There's tragic romances, and then there's this."
5 stars

There are many types of love stories. Some are comedic, some are uplifting. More than a few are tragic. Then there's "Ju Dou", which blows straight past tragic to be downright mean.

Yang Jin-shan (Wei Li) is an old, miserly dye-plant owner who runs the whole operation with just his adopted and somewhat simple nephew Tian-qing (Boatian Li) to assist - that is, until Ju Dou (Gong Li), the new bride he has purchased, appears. Tian-qing is understandably drawn to the young beauty, and even though she's initially a little uncomfortable with his attention. Ju Dou and Tian-qing draw closer together as shared victims of Jin-shan's abuse. She tearily confesses to him that even though Jin-shan beats her for not conceiving an heir, but the older man is all but impotent. There's a solution to that, though...

Tian-qing and Ju Dou are as charming as Jin-shan is rotten. Li Baotian has the tricky task of playing someone who is perhaps a bit simple-minded without playing him as really being stupid. The character doesn't talk much, and the actor gives Tian-qing an air of caution, no matter what the circumstances may be... aside from being alone with Ju Dou. Gong Li gets to see her character evolve a little more over the course of the film (which spans several years) - we see her go from the scared teenager at the start of the movie to a much more confident, assured young woman. Wei Li, meanwhile, makes Jin-shan into a petty tyrant who becomes even worse when the physical abuse stops - there's real joy to his nastiness, but also a certain banality. In his world, there's nothing wrong or unusual with how he treats those he calls family.

It's a mark of how nasty Jin-shan is that the audience is not particularly shocked or dismayed with how Ju Dou and Tian-qing act when the tables eventually turn. The old saying about being nice to people on the way up because you'll see them again on the way down comes into play, and though we do tend to expect better from our heroes than our villains, Jin-shan's comeuppance, brief as it may be, is delicious: Ju Dou and Tian-qing get to scare and humiliate him, and we enjoy watching what could easily be seen (without context) as elder abuse. He's got it coming, sure - but afterward, we can't help but wonder if maybe what comes later could have been avoided had they shown him some amount of undeserved mercy.

The last half of the movie, you see, will involve nearly every blessing they receive being twisted against them in the cruelest possible way. Their child, Tian-bai, takes on many of the worst characteristics of his supposed father Jin-shan, and Jin-shan manipulates the boy's loyalty to torment them further. Even the turns of events that seem like they should make life easier for Ju Dou and Tian-qing create new problems. Writer Liu Heng and directors Yang Fengliang and Zhang Yimou even put the lovers in the position of having to be afraid of their child - both Zhang Yi and Zheng Ji-an are ominous presences: Zheng as an angry teenager who can clearly overpower his parents and Yi as a prepubescent kid who always seems to be glaring accusingly.

I'm not as familiar with Yang as a director, but the film fits into Zhang Yimou's body of work quite comfortably. You can draw a pretty straight line from this to Curse of the Golden Flower; the idea of trying to maintain power within a family setting is the same, and although the film isn't nearly as ornate as the one he would make sixteen years later, it's still very impressive visually: The dye factory gives the filmmakers plenty of reason to work in bold colors, mostly yellows and reds, and it doesn't escape their eyes that red is the color of both marriage in China and blood everywhere - a vat of red dye means different things depending on whether someone is drowning or consummating their love nearby. The factory itself is also just a nifty environment - aside from playing to my "how things work" fetish, the complicated mechanics are a good reminder of how a little force in one place can have a big effect elsewhere.

As cruel as the film can often be - and the filmmakers do often go to fairly dark places - it is romantic, too. Tian-qing and Ju Dou's love is born of suffering and leads to even more, and the tangible result of that love is an unpleasant little psychopath, but the pair are a joy to watch together. There's a lot of high drama, but also the sense that it is worth it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16222&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/03/07 20:42:30
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User Comments

3/18/09 kristin very interestingg glad it was only 1hr30mins 4 stars
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  06-Mar-1991 (PG-13)
  DVD: 14-Feb-2006



Directed by
  Zhang Yimou

Written by
  Heng Liu

  Gong Li
  Li Baotian
  Li Wei

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