Sumptuously photographed yet coolly fatalistic, Ju Dou was banned in its native China while wowing critics abroad with its strikingly erotic content and remarkably direct political subtext. It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film and established the careers of director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li. Made in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, the film brilliantly allegorizes the cycle of violence beget by feudalism and revolution in 20th-century China. Set during the 1920s (before the Communists came to power), the story focuses on a love triangle among Jin-shan, an old, cruel silk dyer; his young third wife, Ju Dou (he beat the other two to death); and the old man's nephew, Tian-qing, who is too poor to marry. Fueled by the overwhelming weight of tradition and his own sexual impotence, Jin-shan initially comes across as a miserly and sadistic monster who showers invective on his nephew and tortures his wife for not bringing him an heir. Yet Ju Dou's and Tian-qing's eventual rebellion is anything but noble. After Jin-shan is crippled, they flagrantly continue their illicit affair, transgressing the rigid hierarchy of tradition. They taunt Jin-shan, as he quietly stews in helpless fury. When the resulting child grows to be a psychotic and violent terror, Zhang's meaning becomes mercilessly clear: you reap what you sow. Dark and unsettling, Ju Dou is a harrowing, sensual tale by a filmmaker reaching the peak of his abilities.
by Jonathan Crow review