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Pioneer Entertainment presents
Ju-Dou (1990)

"Tianqing, I want to tell you... your uncle will kill me sooner or later. I can't go on. Let him kill me. Don't stop him. I don't want to live anymore... He's not human. He's not a man."
- Ju-Dou (Gong Li)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: July 11, 2000

Stars: Gong Li, Li Baotian
Other Stars: Li Wei, Zheng Jian
Director: Zhang Yimou, Yang Feng Liang

Manufacturer: CADDS
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (adult themes, language)
Run Time: 01h:35m:49s
Release Date: June 29, 1999
UPC: 013023026995
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+DB+ D-

DVD Review

Ju-Dou is a 1990 Chinese film about forbidden love and family loyalties in rural 1920's China (all names in this review will be in the "Westernized" form, familiar name first, family name last). The story concerns Ju Dou (Gong Li), a young woman purchased as a wife by dye mill owner Jin-shan Yang (Li Wei), an infertile and impotent old man who abuses her in his efforts to secure an heir. Yang's adopted son Tianqing Yang (Li Baotian) cannot defend her overtly, but the two grow close, fall in love and begin an illicit affair. When Ju Dou bears Tianqing's son, Tianbai, under Jin-shan's name, what little happiness they have found together begins to unravel as the truth emerges and events develop over the next eight years.

Ju-Dou is an adult story—it's slightly melodramatic, but its take on human nature and failings is complex and thought-provoking, broad in scope and refreshingly free of pat Hollywood conclusions. By maintaining some distance from its characters, the film leaves itself open to interpretation—the lovers are happy briefly, but their happiness leads to tragedy for all concerned. This is a tale of sin sans redemption, and none of the characters gets away scot-free—but whether they get what they "deserve" is another question altogether.

Co-directors Zhang Yimou and Yang Feng Liang present this story of love, passion, rage and death with quiet elegance and power. The film uses little dialogue (in Chinese with English subtitles) and depends on its actors and its beautiful, understated cinematography for its effect. Facial expressions and body language communicate volumes, and the earthbound sets and naturalistic approach allow the film's symbolic power to build slowly. When the film takes an EC Comics-esque turn and Tianbai manifests as the embodiment of his parents' sin and shame, images of deep red cloth and slow-motion, living fire bring half-expressed emotions and dark events to cinematic life. This is intensely visual filmmaking, with original, essential imagery that enhances and completes its story.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Pioneer presents Ju-Dou in a disappointing 1.33:1 pan-and-scan transfer cropped down from the theatrical release. Many of the film's visually arresting images are seriously compromised, with framing shapes just barely visible at the screen edges, characters who appear to "arrive late," and damaged compositions throughout. The film's "burned-in" subtitles exhibit heavy artifacting, with unstable edges resembling nothing so much as analog video noise. The source print has moderate flecking and several single-frame scratches, with "gate wobble" and light-level variation in some scenes. In other respects, this is a competent transfer, with solid shadow detail and good handling of set and fabric textures, but this sumptuous film deserves an original aspect ratio presentation at the very least. Here's hoping for a remastered reissue someday.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Chineseno

Audio Transfer Review: Ju-Dou features a solid Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack, supporting the movie's minimal dialogue with richly textured atmosphere. Most of the film's audio occupies the front of the soundstage, with good placement of sound effects and music; the generally-quiet mono rear channel is tremendously effective when called upon to accentuate dramatic moments. The DVD captures the original Dolby Stereo audio cleanly, and the only real sign of the soundtrack's age is the lack of LFE-level bass; this is a fine transfer of a well-engineered soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: No trailers, commentaries or other supplements grace Pioneer's Ju-Dou DVD—there's not even a proper title menu, just a series of four combined title/chapter selection screens accessible by pressing the Menu button (interrupting the film, which starts automatically when the disc spins up.) If it weren't for the chapter selection menus, this disc would be at the very bottom of the scale—but I've seen a DVD without such menus, so it narrowly squeaks into a slightly higher berth.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Ju-Dou is a gorgeous, engrossing film with dramatic twists, fine performances and complex morality. Unfortunately, Pioneer's pan-and-scan transfer does this beautifully composed film a grave injustice. If you haven't seen the film before, a rental may be worth your while (if you can put up with the cropped image and absence of supplements.) But I can't recommend purchase of this title in its current DVD incarnation.


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