The title character, a peasant sold as a concubine to a cruel old man, is played by the beautiful Gong Li, one of the great actresses of our time who followed this brilliant work with spectacular performances in The Story of Qiu Ju (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), and Farewell, My Concubine (1993). Li Wei plays her master, the childless owner of a dye mill in the agrarian China of the 1920s. Li Wei's fine performance combines craftiness with iniquity. The third character in the tragic triangle is Jin-shan's nephew, Yang Tianqing, a modest man who does most of the work in the dye mill. Ju Dou falls in love with Tianqing almost by default, and it is their ill-fated love that leads to tragedy.
Zhang Yimou, the celebrated "fifth generation" filmmaker from China, trained as a cinematographer before he turned to directing, and it shows in every colour-drenched, exquisitely composed frame of this 1989 romantic tragedy. The ageing Yang Jin-shan (Li Wei) runs a successful textile dying factory and purchases the beautiful Ju Dou (Gong Li) to continue his line, but when his own impotence shatters all hope of progeny, he takes his anger out on his innocent young bride. Gentle Yang Tian-qing (Li Bao-Tian) is the sole employee in the lonely factory and his tender friendship with Ju Dou blossoms into love. When Yang Jin-shan becomes wheelchair-bound, the lovers take their affair out into the open, producing a child that he must claim as his own to save face. The stark drama plays out against the astounding backdrop of coloured clothes draped throughout the factory and courtyard, like a rainbow holding out promise of a rich, vibrant world just out of reach. By contrast, the subdued performances hide the inner emotions behind a mask of social control. As the masks are pulled away behind the protective walls of the factory, the fragile triangle collapses as the child grows up espousing traditional values. The film was banned in China, where leaders saw it as an unflattering metaphor for modern Chinese life, a society ruled by a coterie of ageing, controlling men. --Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com
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