In Zhang Yimou and Fengliang Yang's sensuous, Oscar-nominated Ju Dou (1990), billowing bolts of red, yellow and blue dyed silk have more freedom than any of the main characters, who are cut off from the possibility of happiness by circumstances and convention.
The trouble starts early, when Tian-qing (Li Baotian) returns from a long road trip and first sets eyes on his new aunt, the beautiful young Ju Dou (Gong Li). Tian-qing's selfish, harsh silk-dyer uncle Jin-shan (Li Wei) - who reluctantly took Tian-qing in after his parents died - has already gone through two wives, and at first his third seems likely to join her predecessors. Jin-shan routinely beats and humiliates Ju Dou at night, berating her for failing to give him a son (he blames her despite his own impotence and sterility).
Tian-qing is drawn to his lovely, sorrowful "aunt," and eventually they begin a torrid affair. But the strict rules and customs of 1920s China make it impossible for them to build a life together, even after Jin-shan becomes paralyzed and Ju Dou gives birth to Tian-qing's son (whom Jin-shan claims as his own).
A gripping story about how tradition and cultural context can make it impossible to find happiness. Wealth, prestige, beauty, strength, youth all abound in the big house of the cloth dyer, but no one is happy. And it is unhappiness of their own making. The bad old man has his evident faults, he seems to attract hate like a magnet. The young couple is brave and fight for their rights, at least as we can tell with XXI century eyes. But they also err in taking on a battle against their world (feudal rural China) and impossible odds.
Even the little boy who is born out of wedlock in this cruel environment becomes evil very soon in his life, and after his "official" father drowns in a pool of color dye he can only smile and seems bent on perpetuating his heartless character. He viciously kills his biological father when he realizes they are all the object of gossip in the village.
The final fire that consumes the dye factory is perhaps the only satisfying scene of the film, and I read it as a depiction of the last vestiges of feudalism in China crumbling down with the onslaught of modernity. Very good photography in this film. It is paradoxical that the long rolls of cloth of the dye factory give so much color to a very sad and dark story. The DVD is technically poor, seems a bad digitalization from a film roll, for this I take out one star.
The erotic charge is strong in some scenes in this movie and it is always present in the background, but very indirectly. I would not say this is an erotic tale. No nudity at all is to be seen, presumably to get past the Chinese censor.
See more reviews of films about China here on this blog.