China, 1920s—although by the look of the rural village that is the film's setting it could just as easily be the 1720s or 1520s. Jianshan is the cruel, vicious owner of a dyeing mill. His adopted nephew Tianqing is approaching middle age but Jianshan refuses to find a bride for his nephew, preferring to exploit Tianqing's unpaid labor.
Jianshan finds a bride for himself, however. As the movie opens he has bought his third bride, a lovely young woman named Ju Dou (Gong Li). Jianshan is much worse to his wife than he is to his nephew, beating Ju Dou viciously because she has not provided him with a son. It turns out that he beat both of his first two wives to death for this failure, which is really caused by Jianshan being impotent.
In desperation and fear Ju Dou turns to her nephew Tianqing, and they become lovers. Tianqing impregnates Ju Dou, an act which probably saves her life when Jianshan (who apparently managed to get it up at some point) accepts the child, a boy named Tianbai, as his. The power dynamics between the three adults in the household radically shift as Jinshan's evil, Ju Dou's frustration, and Tianqing's spinelessness send all three to their doom.
One of the last films ever made with the dye-transfer Technicolor process. Banned for two years in China due to its frank sexuality and negative portrayal of Chinese patriarchy.
- Bound and Gagged: A disturbing scene in which Ju Dou writhes on the floor, bound and gagged under a chair, while Jianshan sits on the char and talks about how he can kill her if he wants.
- Call-Back: Tianqing and Ju Dou's first passionate lovemaking involves them accidentally yanking down a long bolt of cloth, which slides down into the red dye vat in a heap. At the end, when Tianbai murders his natural father by chucking him in the red dye vat and whacking him with a log, a long bolt of cloth slides down into9 the red dye vat in just the same way.
- Creepy Child: Tianbai never smiles, in fact having a dead-eyed expression all the time. He never talks other than the one time that he addresses Jianshan as "father". The KubrickStares don't help. And oh yeah, there was that time he giggled as he watched Jianshan drown.
- Creepy Children Singing: After the horrifying ending when Tianbai kills Tianqing, followed by Ju Dou setting fire to the dye mill (and apparently immolating herself), the film ends with a freeze-frame of the burning mill, and a thoroughly creepy recording of children singing a Chinese nursery rhyme.
- Cut Himself Shaving: When Tianqing spots Ju Dou's black eye, she says that she fell.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Tianqing's gawking at Ju Dou as she glides by causes him to lose his grip on the mill wheel he's turning.
- Domestic Abuse: God. Jianshan beats Ju Dou unmercifully. Apparently he killed his first two wives, but in patriarchal 1920s China this is not a big deal.
- Kubrick Stare: Creepy little Tianbai is prone to these.
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: Jianshan can't get an erection, which tends to send him into murderous rages directed at his wives.
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Ju Dou passes off Tianbai as Jianshan's. For a while, anyway, until she gets pissed off at a paralyzed Jianshan and tells him the truth.
- Murder by Inaction: Jianshan's deeply disturbing death. It is clear that Tianbai, then a child of elementary school age, didn't mean to knock Jianshan's wheelchair into the red dye vat. But as Jianshan flails around, his dead legs dragging him down, Tianbai watches. And smiles. And laughs.
- The Peeping Tom: Lonely Tianqing just can't stop himself from peeping through a hole in the wood into Ju Dou's room.
- The Quiet One: Part of Tianbai's general creepiness is how he never talks.
- Sex Slave: What Ju Dou actually is, having been bought by Jianshan, and then brutally abused.Jianshan: If I buy a beast I can ride it or beat it at my pleasure. Do you think you are any different?
- Spiteful Spit: A typically cheerful Jianshan does this at one point while Ju Dou is feeding him.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Poor Tianqing and Ju Dou, forced for years to hide their romance. Even Jianshan's death doesn't save them, as the family decrees Ju Dou must not be allowed to remarry. Part of this is Tianqing's own fault, though, for being too gutless to either defy the Gossipy Hens and live openly with Ju Dou, or take her away to someplace where no one knows them.
- Toplessness from the Back: The first time this happens is when Tianqing peeps on Ju Dou when she's changing. Later, after Ju Dou notices the peephole, she does this again, in order to show Tianqing the injuries she's suffered from her brutal husband.