Ju Dou Review

Set in 1920’s China and featuring Gong Li as a young woman who is purchased as a wife for a wealthy merchant, Ju Dou has many similarities to Zhang Yimou’s greater film, Raise The Red Lantern which would follow it a year later in 1991. It may not be as subtle as Zhang’s masterpiece – its challenging of authority figures and traditional roles would lead to the film being banned in China, where Raise The Red Lantern was not, despite being just as political – but already evident in this earlier film are the director’s striking use of light and colour, a strong narrative line and an outstanding performance from Gong Li, all of which would be built upon in the Zhang’s subsequent film.

Eager to have an heir to his silk dyeing business, Old Yang (Li Wei) purchases himself a new wife, a beautiful young woman called Ju Dou (Gong Li), who he hopes will bear him the son that his previous two wives have failed to produce. A bit of a skinflint by nature, Yang fully intends to get full value for money out of his investment, and Ju Dou is forced to suffer his brutal attentions every night. Also as a way of cutting expenses, Yang employs his nephew Tianqing (Li Baotian) to help him dye the expensive silks. Almost 40 years old himself and unmarried, Tianqing is struck by the beauty of his uncle’s new young wife and unable to stand the sounds and evidence of the beatings Ju Dou suffers at Yang’s hand. Aware of the effect she has upon Tianqing and knowing that he spies on her while she washes, Ju Dou tries to shake him out of his craven timidity and intervene to save her – but their actions have a profound affect on the Yang household.

Although the period and location are more exotic – being set in a mountainous region of China in the 1920’s - in many ways, Ju Dou is pure soap opera material that wouldn’t be out of place on East Enders or Coronation Street, with a lurid revenge plot that involves wife-beating, illicit affairs, unwanted pregnancies, illegitimate children and the upholding of family reputations. Several elements however give Ju Dou somewhat more depth and artistry. Zhang’s use of colour, light within a small enclosed environment is masterful, creating a hothouse environment that is entirely appropriate for the melodrama that occurs when the nest of vipers within the Yang silk-dyeing house turn on each other. The colour-coding is not particularly innovative – blood reds dominate, as they often do with Zhang – but like their use in Hero, they form an effective backdrop, dividing the film into distinct areas of action and mood.

The artistry of Zhang Yimou as a filmmaker is also evident in the economy of the storytelling, the director purposefully moving the plot along from one beautiful scene to the next without a single unnecessary scene or extraneous detail, keeping the viewer gripped and giving them no time to consider any heavy-handedness in the script or the plot. As ever in Zhang’s films from this period, from Red Sorghum to Raise The Red Lantern and To Live, it’s Gong Li’s central performance that anchors the development and credibility of the storytelling. Not for a second do you doubt her convictions or the nature of her predicament in any of these films, regardless of how heavily the script and visuals underline it.

What makes Ju Dou most delightful viewing however is the sheer grotesquery of the situations and the fate of the characters. Unlike the typical soap-opera that would paint characters like these in black and white terms, each of characters have a mixture of good and bad qualities and, driven by lust, honour and a need for revenge, they are all capable of quite monstrous acts of cruelty, to such a degree that the viewer finds their sympathy swaying from one person to the other over the course of the film. Zhang would tackle a similar situation, again with Gong Li, in his subsequent film Raise The Red Lantern with a great deal more finesse, but Ju Dou is still fine filmmaking and great entertainment.

Ju Dou is released in the United States by Razor Digital Entertainment. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region coded.

Where to begin? Let’s just say straight out that this is certainly one of the worst DVD transfers I have ever seen. It’s non-anamorphic at a ratio of about 1.60:1, not 2.35:1 as stated on the cover. The original however should probably be 1.85:1, the image here looking cropped on all sides. Like Razor’s DVD of Raise The Red Lantern, released alongside this, the print used for the transfer is most likely a much used cinema print, heavily damaged, showing numerous flaws in the form of marks, tramlines and deep scratches, particularly at the start and end of reels (see first screenshot below). Even worse than the other DVD, the image here is particularly soft, in some scenes almost to the point of impenetrability. It doesn’t help that the colours are washed out by a green tint – a terrible flaw in a film that relies heavily on its use of its use of light and colour – with additional chroma noise and cross colouration throughout. Horizontal lines suggest a video source for the transfer (see second screenshot below) and with interlacing, movement artefacts and a reduced running time, it appears to be an NTSC transfer of a PAL source, possibly mainland China. All in all, a particularly ugly transfer – one that is completely unacceptable for commercial release.

There are two mixes of the soundtrack provided. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is probably closer to the original mix for the film, but is quite unexceptional, being merely adequate. It’s rather dull and shows no great stereo separation, but doesn’t exhibit much in the way of noise or distortion. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is generally satisfactory, not really making use of surrounds or deviating much from the original mix, but actually giving a little more space and separation to the sound elements.

English subtitles are provided, as are Simplified and Traditional Chinese subtitles, suggesting that this DVD has been sourced from an Asia source. There are some minor flaws in spelling and the odd letter or word dropped, but problems here are minor, certainly compared to subtitles on other Asian releases.

The only extra features on the DVD are brief text Biographies for Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, in Chinese and in English. There is nothing particularly informative here.

A grand family melodrama handled with great artistry, Ju Dou is a beautifully made and stunningly photographed film, showing the best qualities of Zhang Yimou and his then muse Gong Li, but you wouldn’t know it from this dreadful DVD release from Razor, which bears little relation to how the film should actually look.

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