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The Unwelcome Questions Raised by China’s ‘Ju Dou’

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The volley of controversy inspired by “Ju Dou"--a visually ravishing drama of adultery, repression and rebellion that is nominated for an Academy Award (best foreign film)--comes from both sides of the Pacific. The Los Angeles Times’ flimsy dismissal of the film by Peter Rainer shortchanges “Ju Dou” and reveals more about the critic’s confusion than the film itself. The Chinese government, uncomfortable with the movie’s radical political tone, has tried to withdraw it from consideration.

In China, “Ju Dou” has yet to secure a public release, a reflection of the impact such a ruthlessly honest film has in shaping public opinion. America, also, has a hard time managing reality. When that reality is told by people of color, it becomes even more difficult to digest.

That it has taken this long for a Chinese film to secure mainstream recognition in the United States is a testimony to the narrow margins of the American film industry. That the plot of such a film can only be interpreted by critics like Rainer as an exotic version of a Hollywood story is symbolic of the same cramped focus.

That Chinese characters lack “psycho-logical depth” in the eyes of some of the film’s critics echoes the difficulty such people have in seeing people of color as anything but exotic cardboard dressing for lighter-skinned heroes. All this is understandble in a country weaned on images of Asians as compliant seductresses and scheming faceless hordes.

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But actually, “Ju Dou’s” biggest provocation is the way its simple, unencumbered narrative belies a complex set of emotional and political responses. Unlike “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which Rainer bandies about in cheap and desperate comparison, “Ju Dou” has no obvious heroes and makes no convenient moral conclusions.

Set in the 1920s, some two decades before China’s socialist revolution, the film is the story of Ju Dou (Gong Li), a woman sold as the third wife to Jin Shan, an old dye factory owner in northwestern China. The old man has already tortured his last two wives to death and, although impotent, he habitually beats Ju Dou when she does not become pregnant.

Tian Qing (Li Baotian), the adopted nephew of the old master, is as horrified by his uncle’s treatment of Ju Dou as he is obsessed by her. When the master is away on business, she confronts Tian Qing and initiates a clandestine affair. The two produce a son, but because of the restrictive nature of feudal China in the 1920s, Ju Dou must pass him off as Jin Shan’s child.

When Jin Shan is accidentally killed, his death does little to change Ju Dou’s hopeless predicament. The narrow margins of Confucian thought that have governed China for centuries condemn Ju Dou and Tian Qing’s relationship to remain illicit. Eventually, Ju Dou is provoked to deliver the film’s final, ruthless conclusion.

Although her reaction is delayed, it would be absurd to describe Ju Dou as “cowering,” the way Rainer does in his review. Throughout the film, any attempt at breaking out of her situation is hampered by the men who surround her. Ju Dou is motivated by her oppression; Lana Turner’s character in “Postman . . .” is moved by greed. At the core of “Ju Dou” is a woman struggling for control of her own body against a vicious feudal order based on the power of the extended family.

Although the film deals frankly with sexuality and desire, the tone is never extravagant. Director Zhang Yimou shuns the obvious in favor of a more controlled pace. The “sensual core” Rainer despairs for is in “Ju Dou’s” lush visual style and the passion of its characters. Rainer, however, bemoans the fact that “Ju Dou” is not as “luridly explosive” as Zhang’s first effort, “Red Sorghum.”

By Chinese standards, the amount of exposed flesh in “Ju Dou” is negligible. But, it is not a parable about “the life-destroying ravenousness of passion” nor anything in “the racy department” that is keeping the film from being seen in China. Perhaps what alarms the Ministry of Film, Television and Radio so much--and what prompted the recent de facto ban on the future export of any film from China that does not “fully implement the party line"--is the way Ju Dou’s actions so effectively echo the despair of China today.

All over China, urban centers have swollen with the “floating population.” In some dialects, they’re called the “three withouts”: without a work unit, without connections and without hope. They are, loosely speaking, China’s “no future” generations. The young, transient recipients of their government’s revisionist economic policies, they leave their rural homes in search of non-existent job opportunities in China’s metropolitan areas. They are the most blatant signal of the country’s political betrayal.

More than anything else, “Ju Dou” raises unwelcome questions about why, after so many years of change, the country is still mired in the backward ideology of its ancestors. It’s enough, in the parlance of Rainer, to “give Damien the willies.”


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