Something terrible this way comes: comes to a woman living in rural China in the 1920s. She becomes the slave wife—a purchased spouse—of an old man who savagely beats her when she cannot bear him a male heir. Unbeknownst to him, the fault is his, not hers. In despair of her life, she seduces the old man’s adopted nephew, who fornicates with and comes to love her (and she him). But Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s pessimism kicks in; Ju Dou, his 1990 film, ends unhappily. It isn’t just the old man who is oppressive; it is society, this society. It is despotism.
In the title part, Gong Li is unerring as sufferer and seducer. Zhang is an enormously gifted tragedian with all the right camera moves. No, not moves; placement.