“Hear the bell, ding dong.
Here we are at Village wang.
So many dogs, here they come.
They attack us but we can’t run.
We can’t run so we go home.
Play the horn just for fun.”
Ju Dou, the lead of a tragedy set in the 1920’s in rural China, is bought as a wife by the owner of a cloth-dyeing mill, Yang Jinshan. Desperate for an heir, Jinshan cruelly lords over Ju Dou and his nephew Tianqing until the two eventually share an affair in each others’ suffering. Ju Dou bears a child whom everyone believes to be Jinshan’s. Crippled from the waist down after the boy’s birth, Jinshan is forced to move around using a barrel. This vulnerability allows the two to continue with their risky romance as the animosity among this household’s members become more and more palpable, even after Jinshan’s death, and ultimately are consumed in flames.
The children’s song above, though, might as well sum up the 1990 film Ju Dou instead. The casualness of such a morbid message is akin to how the movie was handled with its almost indifferent, detached approach to the unfortunate fates that befell its characters. Jinshan’s abuse of Ju Dou, for example, was shown more through the sounds of her cries and harsh dialogue, with lines like, “When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you’re no better than an animal,” than through scenes depicting direct violence and torture. The lack of such scenes did not hinder its audiences to feel any less disgust for Jinshan or any less pity for Ju Dou. Even the supposed climax of the film where Tianqing finally gave in to his sexual frustrations and made love to his aunt was understated and straight to the point. The only exception to the film’s modest slant is the extreme lengths of cloth that accompanied almost every scene with its vivid colors and hues, narrating the story found between the lines of whatever it was that was taking place. Vibrant deep red for lust and passion or blood and death. Bright yellow for moments of realization and stark insight. Soothing blue for those of stillness and compromise.
The most prominent theme that echoes in Ju Dou is oppression, on different fronts, found in all of its characters. Yang Tianqing, a casualty of tradition, is depicted as passive, fearful and overall without a backbone. Unable to go against his cruel, sadistic uncle because it is not his place to do so, neither could he give in to Ju Dou and her pleas of escape or to Jinshan’s murder because even if it made more sense to just kill the guy, Tianqing had the final say over a mere woman after all, and what he wanted was the comfort of compromise. He’d rather endure the gnawing guilt rather than to break away from the chains of custom.
More than just the favorite antagonist, Yang Jinshan is also a victim himself. Obscure as it is, given the Chinese landscape of the patriarchal institution, it isn’t impossible to imagine Jinshan pushed to manic cruelty in his despairing for an heir to carry on the Yang family name. The importance of continuing and maintaining the pure name of the Yang family was shown repeatedly throughout. Gossip is highly feared for dread of disgrace. Even in front of the altar of his ancestors, he denounces the disgrace of Ju Dou and Tianqing’s coupling. Seen in contrast, Jinshan’s raises his head amongst his elders during Tianbai’s third birthday as proudly and as smugly as he could, being able to uphold the family honor—the highest honor.
Tianbai’s character remained mute almost during the whole film yet spoke volumes with this silence. He may have supposedly inherited his real father’s docile, submissive nature, but growing up in the environment of such a repressive Chinese society, he condemned his “brother Tianqing” for his relationship with his mother, wanting to first uphold the family honor before anything else, ready to chase, and possibly murder, anybody who spreads bad gossip about his widowed mother. The devilish looks that he perpetually gives Tianqing and Ju Dou could mean so much more than hate. The troubled expressions Tianbai wears could be a consequence of the frustrated negotiation he’s had to make in the tight spot he’s found himself in—subjugated within the conflict of loving the members of his family and caring for the family name.
The tolerated abuse and oppression of women in this patriarchal society, as embodied in Ju Dou, opens up an aspect of human society that isn’t exclusive to the Chinese. Which begs the question how much should something cultural be tolerated?
Ju Dou has given audiences a peek into this world that is foreign even to its Asian neighbors. Though understandably much more controversial during its release, in the 2000’s, such themes are not as groundbreaking anymore. The interdependence formed between the local with the global in the past decade has created a world where the local is pressed to align to the majority, or is unable to meet “international standards” unless they follow the rules of the global arena.
Set in the 1920’s, the film, as director Zhang Yimou believes, is still relevant in the Chinese context today. The same questions are elicited from Ju Dou’s melodramatic scenes, and though viewers are not “broadened” the same way now from when it was seen back then, it is brought to light that the approach to issues, such as human rights, are not effective in attaining its goals. How can a local film like this truly influence the world? The local-global relationship (usually seen as making global references affecting local action) has been so one-sided that its almost oppressive tendency has been thought to be but a consequence of this borderless world. But whoever said it had to be that way? Those who may disagree have resigned to trying to conform with great difficulty to such international standards due to cultural differences, or have shut away such foreign influences completely—questioning the very purpose of such a globalized world.
“They attack us but we can’t run. We can’t run so we go home.”
- Ginelle Petterson