Though Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou is well known for its’ overt displays of sensuality, in my eyes, the film is more a depiction of the impact of a status quo which emotionally and physically imprisons women in the hands of men. The setting of the film may be in 1920’s rural China, but the plot of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage is one present in many countries around the world.
The patriarch of the Yang family, the sadistic, abusive Jinshan purchases the young, short-tempered, yet easily amused Ju Dou as a third wife to replace the two he previously tortured to death for failing to provide him with a male heir. The mise-en-scene of Ju Dou being tortured by Jinshan at night exemplified his obvious sadistic tendencies that the village has failed to recognize. Presumably Ju Dou did not meet Jinshan before her marriage, as she falls into an abyss of difficult daily manual labor and nightly torture at Jinshan’s hands, who sees her as “no better than an animal”. Possibly as a form of escapism, her attentions turn towards the other victim of Jinshan’s exploitation – his orphaned nephew Tianqing, and the two quickly begin an affair.
Their mutual initiation of the affair is possibly the biggest act of subversion on their part of the dominant male patriarchal beliefs that have imprisoned Ju Dou physically, mentally, and emotionally. Ju Dou exemplifies the theme of subversion the best, through her affair, subsequent verbal and physical abuse of Jinshan, and even through her constant demands of Tianqing to “take her away” from her reality. Tianqing on the other hand, exemplifies the more obvious theme of internal conflict; while he desires, loves, and wants to protect Ju Dou, he is attached to his uncle and doesn’t wish to subvert the dominant patriarchal, familial social order. The mise-en-scene of Tianqing slapping Ju Dou best reflects his internal conflict, his hypocrisy in abusing her just as she had been abused by Jinshan.
Hypocrisy is also evident in the patriarchal social order. While Jinshan was congratulated on his third marriage after having killed his first two wives, Ju Dou is expected to remain single after having been widowed. Through Ju Dou’s plight, the “male gaze” is shown to consider women as objects and subservient, to expect women to be family-oriented, accepting of men’s decisions, to work in the household. That Ju Dou’s life is controlled by Jinshan, Tianqing, and even Tianbai exemplifies that authority is based on gender and not moral character. The three men are each applauded for their roles, and expect not to be questioned on their decisions; the mise-en-scene of Ju Dou telling Tianqing that “your uncle will kill me sooner or later” depicts her hopelessness at this reality.
That Ju Dou initially doesn’t tell Tianqing of her abuse indicates an undercurrent of shame in the film. She overcomes this feeling upon the mutual initiation of their affair, revealing a rebelliousness to her nature. Tianqing mirrors this rebelliousness in private, physically and verbally abusing Jinshan, but maintains an element of decorum in public, hoping not to disrespect his family – the importance of family relations is thus, an important theme. The importance of traditions is a key element of the status quo, an element of the zeitgeist in 1920’s rural China. This is emphasized through non-diegetic sounds, while the diegetic sounds amplify the film’s overt sensuality.
It is hard for me to recommend Ju Dou; the woman’s plight being difficult to watch. However, Zhang may perhaps be using the overt sensuality of the film to draw audiences into a story that is more sorrowful than sensual. That Ju Dou, despite her years with Tianqing, never marries him, brings the film to an unsatisfying conclusion. One also cannot help but pity Tianqing when he repeatedly fails to form a healthy relationship with Tianbai. Yet, the film is an honest depiction of the hypocrisy evident in the patriarchal norms that women are unfortunately victim to, not just in 1920’s rural China, but in other countries as well.