The first three films directed by Zhang Yimou form a trilogy linked by their early twentieth century, pre-Communist settings, themes around social constraint versus personal desire, lavish visual style, and the presence of his muse Gong Li. (1) Situated in between Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Ju Dou’s striking mise en scene, melodramatic narrative and allegorical meanings garnered Zhang auteur status internationally. Together with the early work of Chen Kaige, the trilogy became the cornerstone for the opening up of Chinese cinema to the rest of the world, and positioned Zhang in a complex (and later shifting) relationship with his own country, celebrated abroad while his work was suppressed by the authorities at home.
These films have been predominantly interpreted as indirect critiques of Communist power structures, with the female characters played by Gong Li standing in for the Chinese people. They were criticised within China for their negative portrayal of a patriarchal, repressive and ritualistic society, as well as for their exotic, orientalist imagery that supposedly indulged Western tastes and perpetuated stereotypes. (2)
The characters played by Gong Li in this trilogy link back to a long tradition of female protagonists in Chinese cinema, from the stars of 1930s melodramas, to the “new woman” characters of the post-revolutionary period. (3) However, Gong Li’s fame and stardom went beyond what any earlier Chinese actresses had achieved. Her beauty and the film narratives that portrayed her suffering, fighting spirit and sensuality made her synonymous with a particular glamourized, exotic and erotic Chinese femininity. This has attracted a great amount of critical attention, relegating consideration of the portrayal of masculinity in Zhang’s films to a secondary place.
The trilogy contains a range of representations of masculinity in contrast to the more fixed character type played by Gong Li. There is the vigorous labourer and lover in Red Sorghum, and the absent, faceless patriarch in Raise the Red Lantern. The films’ dispersed, fragmented and flawed masculinity has also been read as a product of the changing social and political conditions of twentieth century China. In Ju Dou, the three main male characters are Yang Jinshan (Li Wei), the old and infertile husband and owner of the dye mill, Yang Tianqing (Li Baotian), his adopted middle-aged nephew and Ju Dou’s lover, and Yang Tianbai (Zheng Ji’an), Ju Dou’s son. These three male characters, standing for the three ages of man, are equally the victims of the claustrophobic social order of feudal China.
In spite of Ju Dou’s subordinate social standing, her agency, though limited and ultimately futile, drives the narrative, while the three men are held back through indecision (Tianqing), immobility (Jinshan), and muteness (Tianbai). Their roles are linked, beyond their relationship with Ju Dou and their family ties, through the thematic interplay between social status, virility and male violence. Jinshan’s brutality is permitted by his higher status but is eventually curtailed by his lower body paralysis, Tianqing’s poverty and financial dependence invalidate his agency and his fatherhood, and Tianbai’s silent rage and shame erupts with terrible consequences.
The opening sequence follows Tianqing returning to the village after a trip to sell the silk produced in the mill, in a series of shots where his figure is first dwarfed against an imposing mountain range, and then surrounded and progressively constrained by the village buildings and streets, the door to the dye mill and then the courtyard in the compound. His face is only revealed progressively, and his characteristic dainty walk will remain throughout the film in contrast to the more static and assured presences of his uncle and son.
This opening sequence establishes the sense of the characters’ entrapment within their family and business dwelling. The first view of Jinshan, in a wide shot and slightly low camera angle, equally presents a figure constrained by the room’s dark colours and traditional decorations, including the long banners with Chinese script hanging from the ceiling. He is seen asserting his ruthless authority over his workers, eating and counting the money earned from Tianqing’s trip.
The action seldom abandons the compound and its cavernous places, only lightened by the red and yellow strips of silk. Visual motifs associated with the male characters express the rigid and constraining order of the household and wider social structures. Later in the film, the announcement of Tianbai’s birth by a midwife (“a fat baby with a watering spout between his legs!”) is immediately followed by the group of elders gathered in the house for the purpose of choosing a suitable name, tradition being the main deciding factor. Tianbai as a baby is seen wrapped in thick clothes not allowing him any movement and sitting in a wooden barrel-like container, just as Jinshan will eventually be encased in a barrel-like wheel chair.
The key conflict shifts throughout the narrative from the older men’s claim over Judou to their claim over Tianbai’s paternity. Zhang’s emphasis on the visual over the oral is evident in the portrayal of this child, who is a cipher, because of his almost complete muteness and lack of expressiveness. With the exception of his first words (“father”) and shocking laughter when Jinshan falls into the dye water, Tianbai is a wordless face, and his actions are reduced to accusatory looks, tense movements and increasingly destructive behaviour.
In characteristic melodramatic style, the trauma of this family is embodied in the son and finally erupts in Judou’s final act. Zhang might be warning audiences about the potential destructive impact of older generations on new ones here – certainly, the children’s voices heard singing as end credits roll suggest so. (4)
1. Zhang also collaborated with Chen Kaige as a cinematographer on Chen’s directorial debut Yellow Earth (1984) and was co-director of the thriller Codename Cougar (1989).
2. Pi-Chun Chang, “Globalized Chinese Cinema and Localized Western Theory,” China Media Research 5:1 (Jan 2009), pp. 10–20; Berenice Reynaud, “Chinese Cinema” in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 543–549.
3. Berenice Reynaud, “The New Woman Question in Chinese Cinema,” in Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, ed. James Bell (London: BFI, 2014), pp. 94–101; Rey Chow, “Woman, fetish, particularism: Articulating Chinese cinema with a cross-cultural problematic,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1:3 (2007), pp. 209–221.
4. Vincent Brook offers this translation of the song: “Hear the bell, ding dong/here we are at village Wong/So many dogs, here they come/they bite us all but we can’t run/we can’t run so we go home/play the horn, just for fun.” “To live and dye in China: The personal and the political in Zhang Yimou’s Judou,” CineAction 60 (2003), pp. 21–30.
Ju Dou (1990 People’s Republic of China 95 mins)
Prod Co: China Film Co-Production Corporation Prod: Hu Jian, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Zhang Wenze Dir: Zhang Yimou, Yang Fengliang Scr: Heng Liu Ed: Yuan Du Prod Design: Cao Juiping, Xia Rujin
Cast: Gong Li, Wei Li, Baotan Li, Ji’an Zheng
NB: Names in this article follow the Chinese order, with family names first.