To filmgoers who frequent foreign-film festivals, one of the oddities of the trade is observing how many times the same old plots turn up in exotic new guises. “Ju Dou,” nominated this year for a best foreign-language film Oscar, is like a Chinese variation on “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” with dashes of “The Omen” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” thrown in for good measure.
It’s about Ju Dou (Gong Li), the beautiful, cowering third wife of an aged, abusive dye factory owner in northwest China in the 1920s. Because they did not provide an heir, his two previous wives were brutally done away with. Ju Dou, in order to save her life far more than her husband’s honor, seduces the old man’s adopted nephew, Tianqing (Li Baotian), and produces a roly-poly son, Tianbai. Ju Dou and Tianqing are covert lovers until an accident cripples the old man; flaunting their passion before him, they are nevertheless reconciled to a life of secrecy in their community. Meanwhile, the baby boy glowers menacingly at the passing parade.
The Chinese government first submitted the film for Oscar consideration and then, reconsidering, attempted unsuccessfully to have it withdrawn because apparently it was too racy and not sufficiently socialistic. It has yet to screen in China.
All this controversy may lead you to expect a whiz-bang scorcher but, by Western standards, “Ju Dou” is tame indeed. We see Ju Dou undress demurely, from the back, and there are a few hot embraces that rapidly fog into fade-out. In the racy department, that’s about it. (The film is unrated.)
In, for example, the original 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” the sensual explicitness was equally tame but Lana Turner and John Garfield melted down the screen anyway. That movie didn’t have to show sex. It was sex. “Ju Dou” (Goldwyn Pavilion) is about the life-destroying ravenousness of passion, but it doesn’t have a sensual core. Director Zhang Yimou and his collaborator Yang Fengliang probably have the aptitude to provide that core, but the restrictions of their film industry hem them in.
What makes the film worth seeing anyway is the brazen richness of the production. It’s as if the filmmakers, closed off from making even a suggestively sensual experience, threw their energies into the colors and textures of their people’s lives. “Ju Dou” has a vibrant look; it’s not incidental that the movie, adapted from a famous Chinese novel from the ‘20s, is set in a dye factory. The reds and yellows in this film have a fairy-tale aliveness; they reflect the passions that inflame Ju Dou and her lover and son. And Gong Li is beautiful enough to make all these passions seem eminently justifiable. She makes the transition from frightened wife to vengeful adulterer without missing a beat. It’s a seamless, full-scale performance.
“Ju Dou” isn’t as luridly explosive as “Red Sorghum,” the previous Zhang Yimou-Yang Fengliang movie released in this country; it’s not as mad as that film. But, in its own dampened fashion, “Ju Dou” is true to its own depravity. When the little boy, now teen-aged, fixes his stare on Tianqing, the glower is enough to give Damien the willies.