American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Sex, it is said, is the only luxury with which the poor are as well supplied as the rich. But within the rigid Chinese feudal society depicted by "Ju Dou," that is not quite the case. The movie, which is set in the 1920s but might as well be set a century earlier, tells the story of a wealthy old textile man who marries a juicy young bride and hires a desperate young nephew and enslaves both of them with his cruel will.
The old man owns a factory where he dips bolts of cloth in great vats of bright dyes, and then hangs them on long poles to dry. The cloth is bold and brilliant, the colors of passion, but nothing to compare to the emotional tumult taking place beneath the old villain's roof. He is sadistic and impotent, and entertains himself by tormenting his bride while the nephew listens in the middle of the night. The nephew is too poor, of course, to afford a wife, and the bride too poor to take the husband of her choice. But one day she deliberately reveals herself to the young man, he is easily seduced, and they have a child who she convinces the old man is his own.
The infant grows into a hateful, strong-willed little monster, while the old man grows older and eventually cripples himself in an accident. He has a cart built, in which he pushes himself around his domain, while the nephew and wife continue their affair. Their deception becomes even more dangerous when the child grows old enough to understand what is going on; ironically, he resembles the sour merchant more than the lusty young man who fathered him.
The ending of "Ju Dou" is as lurid and melodramatic as anything conceived by Poe or filmed by Bunuel, and it exhibits justice completely untempered by mercy. But long before the gory finale, the Chinese censors had apparently already decided to suppress this film, which was directed by a young turk named Zhang Yimou. The film was suppressed in China, but went on the international festival circuit, and won a best director award at Cannes and the Golden Hugo at Chicago before becoming one of this year's Oscar nominees in the foreign language category, over the official objections of the Chinese.
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