If I didn't know any better I'd think that old Jim Thompson, the nihilist sage of Anadarko, Okla., had wandered into rural China and had a hand in the making of "Ju Dou," which opens today at the Charles.
The materials feel like a steaming platter of Moo Goo Gai Thompson, complete to vicious deceit, small-beer betrayal, bizarre psychological permutations, extreme cruelty and the intercession of fate heavier than the arrival of Halley's comet.
It features: a greedy mill owner in a country town who beats his new young wife while abusing her sexually; the wife's bonding, first sexually, then emotionally, with her husband's innocuous nephew; their flirtation with the idea of murder until fate takes an ironic hand by paralyzing the old tyrant from the waist down; their decision to lock him in a wheelbarrow and torture him with their happiness; and finally, the arrival of an avenging angel -- a solemn psychopathic child -- to destroy all. It should have had a roughly lyrical Thompsonian title: "The Big Red Kill."
The film, directed by the brilliant Zhang Yimou who made the pictorially ravishing "Red Sorghum," even looks like a Thompson style film noir, with its shadowy visual texture and vivid use of color. Since it's still the '50s in China, the Chinese re-create in all wondrous innocence that prime chop from the American movie '50s -- the complex, expressive language of sexual metaphor.
Thus when Ju Dou (Gong Li) and Yang Tianqing (Li Baotian) first yield to their lusts, the movie shows us not an inch of flesh but rather the thunderous collapse of a bolt of dyed red cloth that has been hung out to dry. Like red foam, the material gathers around the thrusting couple. It's something that Hitchcock, the master of analogous copulations such as trains plunging into tunnels, never thought of. And it certainly makes you wonder why the Chinese government banned it. Those dictators! No sense of humor at all!
The movie is certainly the most accessible Chinese film in years: it's pure story, brilliantly acted, immediately recognizable, completely universal. Toward the end, when village elders weigh in to assert the will of the community as more important than the will of the individual, it may feel somewhat strange to Yanks, as is the final ritual, in which two mourners must try 41 times to stop a funeral train. Why 41? Why ask why? It's China, that's why.
Starring Gong Li and Li Baotian.
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Released by Miramax.