Ju Dou (菊豆)
Director: Zhang Yimou, Yang Fengliang
Written: Liu Heng
“Ju Dou” is the brutal and sad story of women’s reality in rural China. It is one of the remarkable, woman-centered films made by Zhang Yimou with his muse and brilliant actress Gong Li. After “Ju Dou” came out, it was followed by “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju.” All of the films were highly acclaimed internationally, and are great pieces of cinematic expression.
The story is set in 1920’s provincial China. The master of a cloth dyeing mill, Yang Jinshan, is old and desperate to have a son so his family name will continue. He buys a third wife, beautiful young Ju Dou (Gong Li). What we get to know through the conversation of two other characters is that Jinshan is a sadistic man who had tortured his other two wives to death, and the same fate probably awaits his new wife. Jinshan is impotent, and he expresses his sexual frustration by sitting on a saddle tied to his wives’ abdomen, and whipping them like animals. There is another resident of the mill, Yang Tianqing. He is the adopted nephew of Jinshan, and even though he bears the family name, he has no rights to inheritance. Jinshan himself admits spitefully that he only took in Tianqing when his parents died to calm rumors in the village that Jinshan might have had some sort of relationship with boy’s mother. He says:
How could my son be so stupid
showing that he has no affection for his filial nephew who has worked for him diligently over the years. Tianqing falls for the beautiful Ju Dou from the first time he sets his eyes upon her. He is 40 years old and never married, and he hides his arousal and sexual desire for her by just peeking through a hole in a wooden wall separating the barn her bathing place. When Ju Dou finds out, her first reaction is embarrassment. Initially, she tries to cover the hole in order to preserve some privacy and dignity in her situation, but then she realizes that Tianqing’s sympathy and affection are the only possible human connections she can have. She uses her feminine power and seduces Tianqing, who being fearful of his uncle and filial to him, at first refuses her. But his long suppressed sexual energy overcomes him, and the characters make love for the first time. They continue their secret relationship and Ju Dou gets pregnant. Jinshan and the whole family are overjoyed with this, especially when she “doesn’t disappoint him” and produces a son. Not long after, Jinshan experiences a stroke, and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. The happy couple does not try to cover their love affair anymore, and Jinshan discovers that Tianbai is not actually his son. Neither fear the crippled old man anymore, but they continue working for him. From the outside they look like a perfect example of Confucian loyalty, while life on the inside is very different. Jinshan is desperate and humiliated, having to move around in a wooden bucket. He attempts to burn everything in a fire and to kill the baby, but fails in both attempts. After a few years, the leverage of power changes again. In a crucial moment, Tianbai recognizes Jinshan as his father, talking for the first time in his life. Jinshan embraces him, and enacts his own little torture upon Tianqing and Ju Dou through the child. Tianqing is then humiliated by being called “brother” by his own son. Ju Dou becomes even more desperate when becoming pregnant again. She tries to abort the child with folk medicine, but just gets a painful infection. She tries to make Tianqing kill Jinshan and free themselves from this dead end situation, but Tianqing still feels filial to the old man, saying
He is still my uncle.
On the other hand, neither have anywhere to go, because if truth were to come out, they would be killed. However, Ju Dou’s will does come true, and Jinshan drowns in an accident at the mill. That makes their lives even worse, though, since a bachelor and a widow cannot live together. According to tradition, she cannot remarry, so she stays and raises the child. Tianqing must live separately, only visiting once in awhile. The characters grasp for the last straws of hope to achieve happiness, but reality doesn’t give them much, and the story ends in tragedy and destruction.
“Ju Dou” is a strongly anti-Confucian film that shows how traditions become traps that do not allow for human dignity or happiness. A sympathetic view is shown towards women who suffer greatly in this patriarchal structure. The relationship of Jinshan and Ju Dou itself, and how being impotent, he still expects the woman to bear his child, is a metaphor for the impossible task of women in fulfilling their ideal Confucian roles in society. Tianqing’s character is tragic in his own way too. As he has low standing in society, he has to spend his whole life serving a man who despises him, and uses him like slave labor. His life is dictated by Jinshan’s wishes, but he is still wired through tradition to be loyal and filial to his uncle. His relationship with Ju Dou becomes his own little protest, practically the first time he takes control of his life and makes a decision. But in the end, in his own way, Tianqing stays filial to the uncle.
The movie explores the controversial role of traditional sexuality, especially in rural areas. Firstly, men are in control of women’s sexuality and reproductive rights. As they own the woman’s body, and the wife is bought like an animal, domestic violence is viewed quite normally, almost in a joking matter. In the beginning, we see a worker telling Tianqing:
Listen carefully at night. You will hear your new auntie’s screams.
Girls in families of patrilineal tradition are viewed as burdens, as they will be serving another family once they get married. Boys are the ones who continue the family line, and they will also take care of parents once they are old. So raising them well is like a social security investment. Poorer families sell their daughters, so in this kind of society structure, there is nowhere for a woman to turn when she is abused. Even after death, a husband still has a grip on his wife’s sexuality, as widows cannot remarry nor have any relations with other men. The movie explores the human side of the sacrifices that make this Confucian reality come true.
Many commentators from the West compared “Ju Dou” to “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” However, except the topic of adultery, I see them as absolutely different films. The Hollywood film shows the demonic side of woman’s erotic power and lust. “Ju Dou” shows characters in a very desperate situation, trying to find humanity and some happiness. Their sexuality looks so innocent, shy and pure, that one cannot feel anything but sympathy for them.
The son, Tianbai, was the character that caused the most confusion. He is a very odd child, somewhere between a vengeful spirit of the ancestors and an incarnation of Freudian Id. I see him as a product of the tradition he was exposed to. All the relatives put him on a pedestal as the last bloodline, the one who would continue the Yang family line. Tianbai saw the illegitimate relations between his mother and Tianqing. Cold and brutal, like the inhuman tradition itself, he tried to put things back into their “proper” lines himself.
Visually, the film is absolutely brilliant. The dyeing mill, with the colorful long sheets of cloth, is such a beautiful setting. It adds a stark contrast to the kinds of things that are really happening inside the mill from how beautiful and “normal” it looks from the outside. I really liked the visual loops that made the story into a desperate spiral of events. How Ju Dou slides down the stairs, screaming at her son, just like crippled Jinshan did before. How Tianbai holds Tianqin on his shoulders, deciding whether to spare his life or not, just like Tianqin did with Jinshan. These loops are throughout the movie, but most of them at the climax of the film. Eventually, the conclusion is that the only way out of this misery is to burn it all. The only way to get away from stagnant and suffocating tradition is to abandon them, to destroy them. I am not implying that Zhang Yimou embraces the communist revolution which was destroying the feudal traditions. There were many movements in China in early XXth century that wanted to modernize China, and they all had different views and influences on how to do it. Therefore, I do not think of this movie as being political. It has much more of a feminist message, and a generally anti-feudal point of view.