The kid represents the cultural and moral oppression of traditional Chinese society.
He full well knew of his mother's and "brother's" relationship. The kid was able to absorb the patriarchal attitudes of his adopted father and society at large, the "old bastard." As a child he was almost pushed into the dye vat by the "old bastard," but the kid mustered enough sense to call him "father" and hence melt his heart. It's disputable whether the kid unconsciously or consciously knew that would save his life. Previously, he never spoke but when he spoke the magic word "daddy," at the right place at the right time, it at least means the kid acknowledges the social mores and situations of his time: he knew his "brother" and mother were having illicit relations (he's seen them fooling around) and still acknowledged the "old bastard" as his father. He knew how to play the game.
The "old bastard," as you recall, had no intentions of recognizing the child unil the child recognized him. The kid lived in a vaccuum in as much a repressed family situation as his birth parents, and he was observing and absorbing everything. He always knew of his birth parents' illicit affair, and he always knew that people praised him when he was recognized as the heir apparent to the dye mill. As his adopted father's son, he was a legitimate, proud son, but as his "brother's" son, he is illegitimate, marked, and shamed. Hence, as a kid, it's much easier to just hate his real father than to actually have sympathy for his adulterous parents.
As an audience we are sympathetic to Ju and Tianqing, but in that kid's eyes, their actions bring dishonor and shame. He lacks as much sympathy for Ju Dou and Tianqing as the society around them lacked. We are sympathetic to the couple because we know they truly love one another and have suffered a great deal together - physical abuse, repression, miscarriage, abortion, barrenness, separation, etc. The kid ignores all those elements as much as the surrounding society did.
He accidentally killed his adopted father as a child. It is not clear whether he intended to do so being so young - this is in fact the most debatable part of the film: is Tianbai already a murderer and capable of revenge at such a young age? He could be avenging for the old man trying to kill him previously and for having all this power over his real parents. Or it could be an accident, but the fact that the directors emphasized that Tianbai never smiled and only laughed in this death scene could say a thousand words. Whatever the complex story is within this sullen kid's psyche, Tianbai has a history of killing father figures and with the same method and location, no less.
No matter how angry and resentful he was towards his parents' illicit affair, he never harmed his mother, however. I think there is an element of the Oedipal complex in this story, but Tianbai also acted as someone who "kept his mother from going astray," sort of a moral chaperone. He put her clothes back on immediately when he discovered his parents in the underground. His parents clearly loved each other and he witnessed their suffering. Yet, he was not touched by it at all. He was more touched by the vicious gossip in the village and would kill to vindicate the shame of his family.
I think Tianbai as a character is more symbolic than anything else. As a fruit of Tianqing's and Ju Dou's love, they could have been a happy family. But with the social structures and mores in place, the kid absorbed the traditional, patriarchal values of his world and enacted upon them on his parents. He recognized their union as unacceptable and punishable by death. In terms of social rank, Tianbai is actually higher up than his real father - though his "brother" is older, he is still adopted and unrelated by blood to the "old bastard," making him a dependent ward for life. Ironically, this is also Tianbai's real status, but he is officially recognized as the old man's son by the village and that makes a world of difference. Tianbai is the future owner of the mill and hence it is easier for him to feel superior to his real father and to cast him away as he pleases. His mother is still the mistress of the mill and he also has some Oedipal feelings for her; it's also easier to blame his real father whose social rank and power is lower than the mother as aunt and mistress of the mill. Tianbai treated his "brother" as a family rogue and that opened an easier path for him to kill him without too much hesitation or guilt - none of which he had anyway.
Absolutely Amazing. I enjoyed your post. Brilliant guy!
Well done. I just saw this film for the first time, and I was almost mesmerized by your commentary. Bravo - and very thought-provoking!
I don't think the child is evil or represents anything.
You may forget what it is like to be a child - children only see things as black and white and often get the wrong conclusions out of the things they see.
The boy saw that his mother kept going to his uncle's house at night, and each time she comes back worn out and tired. He hears her screaming over there (when she tried to used chilli powder and vinegar) but the boy wrongly concludes that the uncle is hurting her. Which is why he throws stones at the uncle's door, just like the uncle did before to save the Ju Dou from her abusive husband.
What makes things worse, the boy even saw his uncle slap his mother once. So he continues thinking that the uncle is a horrible abusive person who somehow has his mother hostage.
However, he sees his paralysed 'father' as a nice guy. The paralysed father never seemed to want to harm him (even though he tried to kill him numerous times as a baby) and always was friendly to him. So the boy thought that his 'rightful' father needed to have Ju Dou beside him. The boy wasn't told who his real father was or how the old cripple used to abuse his mother.