So I didn't love the story but I can't deny that director Zhang Yimou is a master of his art and Gong Li a truly tremendous actress.
Ju Dou (Gong Li) is a young woman sold into a marriage with a barren and abusive man. However when she falls pregnant with her adopted nephew's child, their world becomes filled with lust, deceit and a seriously messed up little kid. With a story like that, it's no surprise that the film falls prey to an excess of overly dramatic moments, and while it often works, there were a number of moments where I found myself more bemused than emotionally affected. The love story is sincere, and the dynamic between the three leads largely successful, however the idea of falling in love with someone outside your highly abusive marriage as a bad thing is too loud and plain bad ethics. The fact that this film was banned in China for supposedly prompting women to rebel against their husbands seems highly ironic when the moral of the story seems to be that any relationship built on rebellion and lies is doomed to end in death and misery.
Gong Li leads the cast with a stirring performance that is entirely in keeping with the film's melodramatic tone. The fact that many of those high-drama moments work is largely down to Li who plays the downtrodden woman so well (see also Raise The Red Lantern, Curse of the Golden Flower). Here she evolves from the silent victim to the desperate seductress to a woman in love, and plays each of these characters with vigour and great power.
Around Li and her co-stars, director Zhang Yimou has created a visually impressive environment. The draped cloth of various colours makes for some nifty tricks as Yimou has clearly perfected the art of letting them fall through the air into pools of water in the most sensual and artistic of ways. Similarly he quite literally plays with fire, allowing the flames to lick the screen in several scenes, adding to the sense of danger in a most aesthetically pleasing way.
Thus while Ju Dou is no discredit to Yimou's impressive reputation, the film's questionable moral overtones prevent it from having the same effect as his other works. However Gong Li and the beautiful visuals still hold much for audiences to marvel at.