Is it an unfair conclusion that Oriental cinema is particularly drawn to the Greek/Shakespearean tragedy? Certainly postwar Japanese films reflect this possibility – Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran; not to mention influences in films by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Teshigahara, and Ichikawa. Of course Chinese cinema distinguishes itself from Japanese (and modern/contemporary cinema from postwar). Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou is a quintessential tragedy in the vein of Shakespeare, replete with a fall from an Eden-state, a conspiring couple, a malevolent force causing the demise of the protagonists, and an utter absence of victory or vindication.
Visually, the film is remarkably restrained, especially when one knows the realized potential of Yimou in his other works (not to mention the unsurpassable opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Unfortunatley, the (Region 1) DVD quality is horrendous, but the cinematography shines through, regardless. The film emphasizes Tianqing’s clumsiness in the first half, pointing ahead to his inevitable failure in the end. His and Ju Dou’s contempt for their evil master not so much sets them apart from him as lowers them to his level. Their affair in his home next to his textile vats in his absence cements their immoral status despite their mutual love. That their love is born through pity and voyeurism also portrays a fundamental shallowness in their early infatuation.
The film also seems to imply a moral ambiguity through the colored fabrics. Contrast the hues here with Kurosawa’s Ran, in which the princes were objectively identified with the particular colors. In Ju Dou, the colors are more alike and placed closer together; they don’t quite blur, but they share almost identical space. The cut to the red vat during the couple’s consummation not only adeptly indicated her loss of physical purity, but foreshadowed their tragic demise through their joint moral surrender.