[box cover]

Ju Dou

In Zhang Yimou and Fengliang Yang's sensuous, Oscar-nominated Ju Dou (1990), billowing bolts of red, yellow and blue dyed silk have more freedom than any of the main characters, who are cut off from the possibility of happiness by circumstances and convention. The trouble starts early, when Tian-qing (Li Baotian) returns from a long road trip and first sets eyes on his new aunt, the beautiful young Ju Dou (Gong Li). Tian-qing's selfish, harsh silk-dyer uncle Jin-shan (Li Wei) — who reluctantly took Tian-qing in after his parents died — has already gone through two wives, and at first his third seems likely to join her predecessors. Jin-shan routinely beats and humiliates Ju Dou at night, berating her for failing to give him a son (he blames her despite his own impotence and sterility). Tian-qing is drawn to his lovely, sorrowful "aunt," and eventually they begin a torrid affair. But the strict rules and customs of 1920s China make it impossible for them to build a life together, even after Jin-shan becomes paralyzed and Ju Dou gives birth to Tian-qing's son (whom Jin-shan claims as his own). Filmed just after China's political upheavals in 1989, Ju Dou has been recognized as an allegory for the country's violent history, but even without that subtext, it's a powerful melodrama about longing and the complicated morality of desire. Tian-qing and Ju Dou are hardly without flaws — he sneaks peeks at her early on, and she is quick to resort to tears to manipulate him — and while Jin-shan is abusive and ungrateful, even he is revealed to have a softer side. All the while, Yang surrounds them with floating cloth, vivid pools of dye, golden light, and interesting shadows, using his prior experience as a cinematographer to beautiful effect as a director. Unfortunately, most of that beauty is marred by the multitude of scratches and other defects on Razor Digital's Ju Dou DVD. The widescreen transfer (1.59:1, which is cropped from 1.66:1 and certainly not the 2.35:1 aspect ratio claimed on the back of the box) is terrible. In addition to the source-print being riddled with scratches, the colors aren't as bright or sharp as they could be. What's more, the subtitle translation is questionable at best; typos are rampant ("brothe" instead of "brother," "with drawn" instead of "withdrawn"), uses of modern slang are jarring (it's doubtful that anyone in 1920s China used "loser" as an epithet), and in at least one instance, an incorrect verb tense completely changes the meaning of a line. By comparison, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in Chinese is strong; a 2.0 track is also available, as are English and Chinese (traditional and simplified) subtitles. The only extra are brief bios of Yimou and Li. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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