In this drama, the harsh treatment of women in Chinese society is examined and subtly commented upon as it tells the tale of an impoverished woman living in Shanghai, circa 1910 who tries to support her brother and sister-in-law. A marriage to a wealthy man is arranged for her, and reluctantly she endures it, even though she does not love the man who is as cruel as he is wealthy. His mother is also brutally unkind to her. She then has a son, but her struggles are not over when her husband dies and only leaves her a modest inheritance. Her wretched life has made her bitter, and so she begins making her son suffer as she die; she also becomes addicted to opium.
Jesus (Willem Dafoe), a humble Judean carpenter beginning to see that he is the son of God, is drawn into revolutionary action against the Roman occupiers by Judas (Harvey Keitel) -- despite his protestations that love, not violence, is the path to salvation.