We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Since it was the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s tricolor trilogy, it made a certain sense that Blue began more convincingly than it ended: It would be for Red, after all, to provide the real finish. Now that Red has arrived, however, it’s clear that endings are just not Kieslowski’s calling. This is in many ways a stunning film, but it will disappoint those anticipating a coda that makes something definitive of the series’ luminous but elusive moments.

Where Blue ended with a trite life-goes-on montage that suggested a long-distance commercial, Red opens with chatter and the camera swooping along a telephone cable. It’s the line connecting Valentine (The Double Life of Veronique‘s Irène Jacob), in Geneva, with her never-seen boyfriend in England. The red in the French flag stands for fraternity, and once again Kieslowski (with co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz) tweaks the French Revolution’s noble ideals: In his modern Europe, family, friends, and lovers are but disembodied voices, yearning for the connection that technology tauntingly promises but fails to deliver.

For Kieslowski, random acts of fate are a form of grace, and Valentine’s future depends not on her boyfriend but on two men she has yet to meet. The young woman, a fashion model and student, is driving home one night when she accidentally hits a dog. (Unlike the collision that opens Blue, this one is not fatal.) Though the lovely Valentine is as much a mythic creature as the ice-maiden heroines of the two previous films, she’s a bit warmer (red, not blue or white). She takes the dog home, where she meets its owner, a bitter retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Despite the judge’s brusqueness, Valentine visits him again, and soon discovers his secret. To amuse himself, the judge spends his days eavesdropping on the portable-phone calls of his neighbors, including a woman who provides individualized weather reports—weather, an instrument of fate, is significant to Kieslowski—and who is the girlfriend of Auguste, a neighbor of Valentine who is frequently glimpsed in the film. Auguste, who is studying to become a judge, is to be important in Valentine’s life, though they may not have even met when Red ends.

The judge eventually tells Valentine his story: When he was a young man, his spirit was crushed by a romantic betrayal much like the one Auguste now encounters. The connection is but one of many; Red is dizzy with parallelism, both within itself and with its two predecessors. Where Blue had a brood of newborn rats, Red has a litter of puppies; where old people struggled to get a bottle into a recycling bin in both Blue and White, in Red Valentine helps an old woman accomplish the task. Even the central likeness of Valentine profiled against (of course) a red background—the one used in the newspaper ads—is doubled: first as a photograph for an advertising billboard, then as a flickering TV-news image after the offhand cataclysm that closes the film (and brings together the central couples of the previous ones for a final bow).

Kieslowski, a mystically inclined Catholic, may think he’s expressing God’s mystery, but if there’s any Godlike presence here it’s his own. Pitilessly manipulating his characters’ lives, he even has the Old Testament chutzpah to destroy hundreds of (fictional) lives just to achieve his ultimate goal of uniting the lead characters of the three films. This is faintly appalling, but then the director’s films, for all their visual beauty, do have a certain ruthlessness. “Be sad. Sadder. Think of something awful,” commands a photographer to Valentine during a shoot, and Kieslowski might well have said the same thing to Blue star Juliette Binoche during the making of that film.

God rested after creating his universe, and Kieslowski has announced that he will not direct again. That’s a suitably grand gesture, but then, as noted above, the director’s not good at endings. The Red press kit includes a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, chosen by Kieslowski, that concludes with these lines: “But every beginning/Is only a continuation/And the book of fate is/Always open in the middle.” If that’s true, then the book of Kieslowski’s career hasn’t closed either. Meanwhile, Red is the most appealing of the trilogy; it’s as formally beautiful as its predecessors, while Valentine (and Jacob’s performance) give it a humanity that almost bests the director’s overdetermined machinations.

In many of Zhang Yimou’s films, women in China’s recent past are oppressed by brutally imperious husbands. Women From the Lake of Scented Souls—whose writer/director, Xie Fei, taught Zhang and other filmmakers of his generation at the Beijing Film Academy—updates the scenario: A woman living in contemporary China, Xiang (Siqin Gaowa), takes upon herself the responsibility for oppressing a new daughter-in-law. Her husband, though abusive and sexually demanding when drunk, is too weak to carry on the patriarchal tradition, and her retarded, epileptic son, Dunzi, “doesn’t know how to be a man.”

For the Chinese peasant, much and yet little has changed; Xiang has access to birth-control pills, but faces a beating if her husband discovers she’s been taking them. Women doesn’t develop the contrast between rural and urban China as fully as did Zhang’s The Story of Qui Ju, yet it’s patent in such scenes as the one where local children swarm an incredible artifact from another world that has arrived in their village: a luxury car. (In both films, the image of Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat appears briefly as an emissary of urban sophistication.)

The car brings a Japanese woman who’s impressed by Xiang’s sesame oil; she wants to import the product to her country and invest in machinery to increase production. Xiang is astonished that a woman would have such a role in international trade, yet she’s the de facto chief executive of her family’s oil-making business—and soon proves herself skilled at personnel management.

Learning that her son is attracted to Huanhuan (Wu Yujuan), Xiang sets out to arrange their wedding. She essentially purchases Huanhuan for the sum her family needs to pay off a debt, while buying off the woman’s boyfriend by sending him off to run a sesame-oil shop in the city. Huanhuan is appalled at the prospect of marrying Dunzi, but has no choice; she has yet to learn, of course, that Xiang survives her own joyless marriage only with the help of a lover, Ren (Chen Baoguo), the trucker who brings supplies to the sesame-oil operation. Despite having been sold to her own husband at a young age, Xiang at first doesn’t realize what she’s perpetrated; ultimately, however, she comes to understand that she’s done the same injustice to Huanhuan that was done to her.

Zhang has long since surpassed his teacher, and Women is not so striking a film as Ju Dou or Raise the Red Lantern, which pursue similar themes and visual motifs. Both Zhang and Xie favor rapturous close-ups of the processes of rural industry, and the wedding of Huanhuan and Dunzi supplies the colorful pageantry customary in recent Chinese films, while the local lake that provides the film’s title—and whose legend connects Xiang and Huanhuan to the sufferings of two women who supposedly drowned themselves there—is a suitably evocative setting.

The essential link between Xie’s film and Zhang’s, however, is the character of the indomitable woman peasant, rebellious and yet entrapped both physically and psychically by the system that impels her. It’s no wonder that the directors find this character so compelling, and that the authorities find the films that celebrate her so dangerous: When the person at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy finally stirs, a social order that’s governed China for millennia is threatened.