As China’s first film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Ju Dou mainly depicts a woman named Ju Dou who is in feudal ethical code and feudal superstition quagmire in struggling to carry out resistance in early 20th century in rural China. Ju Dou is adapted by a well-known Chinese novel “The Obsessed”, which is written by Liu Heng. Chinese famous director Zhang Yimou directed this film with Yang Fengliang. Zhang has his own unique version of artistic expression and color schemes. His characteristic of director art embedded in this film. Ju Dou is a typical eastern cinema that combines oriental beauty and eastern traditional social conflicts. The film successfully narrates a Chinese style tragedy within a feudalistic environment by put a large number of contrast techniques into use. The film applies contrast techniques mainly in its characterizations, color application, and metaphorical expressions.
“Ju Dou” is not only the title of the film, but also the name of the leading character. The story begins as Yang Tianqing is returning to his uncle’s house. The uncle called Yang Jinshan is running a business, which is a dye mill to dye fabrics for villagers, in his house. Someone tells Tianqing that Jinshan has just bought a new wife. The new wife is Ju Dou. Jinshan has tortured two previous wives to death. For Ju Dou, Jinshan lets her work in the dye mill in day and tortures her at night. He really wants Ju Dou to bear a son as a successor also for his big family and the dye mill. Because Ju Dou is a young and beautiful woman, Tianqing cannot help himself starting to pay close attention to the young aunt. He discovers her bathing area and spies on her in the mornings. Also, because Jinshan is unable to be a real man, Ju Dou feels the same way about Tianqing as Tianqing does about her. Soon, they engage in sexual intercourse. Till Ju Dou bears a boy called Tianbai, Jinshan does not notice what happened between his wife and his nephew and thinks that the boy is his own son. When Jinshan discovers Ju Dou and Tianqing’s affair, he wants to kill Tianbai and fails. Ironically, one day, when Jinshan carelessly falls into the dye vat, Tianbai just smiles and stares at him struggling even though Tianbai has called Jinshan “father” for years. After Jinshan dies, Tianqing has to leave the house to avoid arousing suspicion. They still meet with each other at different places and have sex. However, Tianbai hears some muttering that his mother and his “brother” have secretive trysts in the field. As a rage-filled teenager, he vigorously rejects Tianqing. In the end, Tianbai drowns Tianqing in the dye vat and Ju Dou then burns the mill down.
The technical characterizations shape two typical contrary types of features with penetration in Chinese feudal society and make the tragedy more realistic. For the heroine, when Ju Dou’s face first appears on the screen, we see a woman wearing yellow clothes and twisting her hair into a loose bun as a normal laboring woman. She is beautiful. Her eyes look innocent with water-like tenderness. Such a traditional rural woman feature makes audience feel that she may be very gentle and obedient like many other women in that era. When she tells Tianqing that she keeps the virgin for him and calls Jinshan “old thing”, we just discover her rebellion and potential ambition. In Chinese feudal society, even though Jinshan and Tianqing do not have blood relationship, Ju Dou and Tianqing’s illicit sexual relation is regarded as commit incest. Such a behavior is strictly prohibited and commits huge sins, especially for Ju Dou. The reason is that women in a low position at that time and they have to be submissive to men. It is no doubt that Ju Dou is different because she desires to revolt against a woman’s arranged destiny by men and break through traditional social restraints to get what she really wants. It is a character could almost be said a little sharp. When she thinks that the existence of Jinshan may threaten their peaceful life, she has thought to kill Jinshan and she never show sympathy to Jinshan’s disability. She thinks that the fact that Tianqing is Tianbai’s father is real, then it is unquestionable to tell Tianbai the fact regardless of what will happen. It is an extreme feature that stacks against traditional women. She shakes off the fetters of the old system to fall love with her husband’s nephew and never feels guilty in this kind of environment.
For Tianqing, it is an opposite figure to Ju Dou. In a man-dominated society, Tianqing is cowardice. He almost absolutely obeys his uncle. However, it is not his nature to be obedient. He has desires and his own thinking, but he just does not dare to react against. When he has feelings for Ju Dou, he just spies on her through the small hole and watches her closely in the side of silent attention. At night, when Jinshan tortures Ju Dou, Tianqing feels angry but cannot do anything. There is a scene that Tianqing cannot suppress his rage to hear Ju Dou’s scream so that he picks up an axe one night. When he is too emotional to try to cut the wooden staircase, Jinshan suddenly stops and asks what happened outside. At that moment, Tianqing comes back to senses and realizes what he just did. His facial expression shows his fear and loss. It seems that even himself feels surprising about his previous behavior. The plot tells audience that Tianqing has his own emotions and thoughts in his deep mind, but he just do not dare to show them. It is because he is still restrained by feudal code of ethics.
The contrast of Ju Dou’s doughty and Tianqing’s weakness is very interesting because in such a dark era in China, a woman bears more shackle than a man does. The film tends to use the contrast to satirize feudalism. Ju Dou has mentioned several times that she wants to leave the village with Tianqing and Tianbai, and then they could have a new life. However, Tianqing does not have enough courage to start over. Also, he feels that if they leave, villagers and family relatives will realize their incest. Tianqing is so afraid to being condemned by the public. Very early on, there is a popular traditional saying that “a woman was to be subordinate to her father in youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age.” As the role of Ju Dou’s actual husband, Tianqing has never been as much brave as Ju Dou is to oppose the society. His weak personality is one of the reasons that lead Ju Dou’s tragedy. It is a satire for the patriarchal society that men get the dominated power but they cannot be mighty when they should be. The film ingenious portray two contrastive main characters to make the Chinese style tragedy rational, clearly structured, and meaningful.
The color contrast in the film helps to strengthen the tragic flavour. Zhang is really good at application of colors. In the beginning of the film, when Tianqing leads the horse to home, the sky looks mixture of grey and white. It is also reflected the first sentence of the novel, which is “The sky is hazy, just like an egg yolk soaking in pumpkin soup” (Liu Heng, 5). Mists layers thick about people in those years under feudalism. Zhang uses colors to be in harmony with development of plots. In the first half part of the film, the main tone is red. And then it gradually transfers to blue grey. When Ju Dou and Tianqing stay together, have sex and feel happy to imagine a better life in the future, the tone is red. When Tianbai calls Jinshan “father”, the tone is dark. It seems that the director gives the scenes when main characters are hopeful bright color tones, and gives the scenes that characters are too helpless to break through dark color tones. Such contrast of bright tone and dark tone makes audience feel excited to get repressed by the change of colors.
The strongest color contrast is between the bright colors of dye fabrics and the white wall and black roof-tiles. Variety digs deeper into the choice of the location, which is a dye mill, the director wants to express different meanings to audience by the help of different colors. The fabrics that are hung in the dye mill are always in bright colors, which bring sharp contrast to audience when the bright colors are widespread existed in the black and white yard. The white wall and black roof-tiles represent the depressing feudal environment. The bright colored fabrics represent the spirit of revolt of the main characters. Otherwise, at very start, Ju Dou often hangs yellow and white colors. These colors are not loud colors but warm so that the scenes seem peaceful. When Ju Dou discovers that Tianqing is looking at her, there is a blue cloth behind her. Blue is also bright, but it belongs to cold tone. The cold tone conveys the information to the audience that Ju Dou still keep rational and calm when she sees Tianqing, which means Ju Dou does not has feelings to Tianqing yet. When Ju Dou sobs out her thoughts to Tianqing that she does not want to live like this way anymore with Jinshan, she grabs a red cloth. The red color is warm, bright, and fierce, which represents the passion and hope of the main characters. Against the black and white surroundings, the bright fabrics coordinate to tell a story that should not happen in the big house. Also, the bright colors make the whole yard be like covering with a warm-colored fogging in mildness.
Red color is actually the most important color used in the film. It also contains contrastive method to render the tragic art. When Ju Dou and Tianqing finally have the sexual relationship, Ju Dou coincidently kicks down the stick that supports the wooden wheel, red cloth falls into the dye vat that is filled with red dye. The scene that comes with stunning artistic beauty stands for the two characters are free from binding powers of society. When Tianbai is born, he is wrapped in red swaddling clothes, which symbolizes delight of a newly born. In these parts that uses red, the red conveys positive emotions to us audience. In China, red has lucky implied meaning. Chinese people use red color in many ways in joyous occasions. However, the director nevertheless give the red dye some opposite meanings like blood, death, and despair in some later scenes. Two most impressive scenes are that Jinshan and Tianqing drown in the dye vat. Both of them struggle in the red dye. The red liquid is like blood surrounding them. Also, in Tianqing’s drowning scene, a red cloth drops very quickly into the vat. In previous comfortable scenes, red brings joy and hope of reborn. In contrast, in the later two depressing scenes, red strikes audience’s eyes and rouses audience’s mind. The color brings a dreadful sight.
In addition, the contrast of same objects with different metaphorical meanings that are applied in the film emphasizes that the characters are still too weak to save the fate of the situation under feudalism. As I mentioned above, when Tianqing is drowning in the dye vat, the red cloth falls down gradually into the dye vat in rapid speed, which is the same as the scene that Tianqing and Ju dou first have sex. The falling red cloth implies the campaign to the feudal ethics and the release of sexuality. When Tianqing and Ju Dou first have sex, the campaign and release start. When Tianqing dies, the campaign stops and it does not get achievement. The contrast is evident between two similar scenes for the difference that in the later scene, which is Tianqing drowning, the red cloth is completely released from the wooden wheel. It stands for the whole tragic story’s end because Tianqing’s death also takes Ju Dou’s hope away. Audience feels grieved to see two opposite implications endowed in very alike scenes. The contrast between the opening and the ending of the two main characters’ campaign also makes audience get more impressive about the shot so that it strengthens the characters’ tragedy.
Besides, another object with two different metaphorical meanings is the hole. At the very start, Tianqing spies on Ju Dou through a very small hole. It implies that they have little awakening to revolt the feudal ethics. In comparison, when Tianqing and Ju Dou have their last secretive tryst in the cellar, the entrance of the cellar is a big hole. However, the big hole is not representing their progress made during the campaign with the society. Instead, the big hole implies that they could just open such a small space compared with the big whole world to get some sunshine. It is helpless to change the fact that their relationship is a shady light thing in the society. The contrast of the meanings of two holes reflects the brutality of reality in feudal society.
In the conclusion, as Rey Chow said in “The Force of Surfaces: Defiance in Zhang Yimou’s Films”, “these tales of gothic and often morbid oppression are marked by then contrast with the sensuous screen design of the films. Zhang’s film language deploys exquisite colors in the depiction of ‘backwardness’ “ (143), the director is really good at applying color contrast to strengthen the tragic atmosphere and to reveal the psychic of his characters. The use of bright solid colors of the dyed cloths is a masterstroke in the film. But not only that, the contrast techniques that are applied in characterizations and metaphorical expressions also craftily strengthens the tragic atmosphere and emphasizes what the director wants to convey to audience. The opposite personalities of Ju Dou and Tianqing is thought-provoking. The comparisons of different meanings of the red dyed cloth and the holes are sad ironies. Ju Dou and Tianqing are just nobody in feudal China. No matter how desirable they are to escape, the fog of feudal ideology will not easily lift.