I made a special effort to watch Zhang Yimou’s latest film. Bill Kong arranged for the screening. It had to be in Hong Kong. So I had to fly to watch Under The Hawthorn Tree.
It was worth the effort on several counts. So the Zhang Yimou who directed the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics still knows less can be more.
This movie has to count as the most tender and just about the purest love story from China. With this story, Zhang has stuck to a strict back-to-basics approach. It should also count as one of the simplest love stories ever told. So far removed from the intrigues among the concubines in Raise The Red Lantern or the palace conspiracy between king and queen in Curse Of The Golden Flower, it appeared almost unreal at first. Yet it is a real story during the Cultural Revolution. But it is not about the revolution. It is a story simply about love.
Such simplicity is overpowering. A boy falls in love with a girl. He knows what true love is. Without being showy, he single-handedly shows a new generation of movie audiences how classic male chivalry can still melt hearts. The girl receives his love with innocence and determination. And as she comes of age, she feels fresh joy and real pain when love arrives and leaves.
Zhang decided to direct the film because he was moved by the original story, especially this sentence – ‘I can’t wait 13 months for you; I can’t wait till I’m 25; but I can wait for you my entire life.’ He said “When I first started shooting, I thought, no matter how the movie turns out, it has to end with this sentence.”
“When I was working on this story, I thought it would be best to use the simplest language. I wanted to guide audiences through the actors’ performances in a slow and quiet manner. It’s different from what I did before, which focused on dazzling colours and elaborate choreography,” Zhang said.
This movie will count as Zhang’s most ‘colourless’ of late. The cinematographer-turned director has been acclaimed for his bold use of colours ever since Red Sorghum. Red was his favorite colour again in Raise The Red Lantern. The Curse Of The Golden Flower gave us a peek at the visual wonders of the Olympics. Even in last year’s slapstick comedy A Simple Noodle Story, all his characters wore at least five colours.
Not that Under The Hawthorn Tree was shot in the hues of gray in To Live and Not One Less. Here, Zhang went for natural lighting and natural colours. Natural colours seem to be his new red.
Adapted from the popular 2007 novel by Ai Mi, Hawthorn Tree Forever, the movie is based on the real life of Jingqiu, who shared her diary with the author. It was a romance during the ‘zhiqing’ days towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. ‘Zhiqing’ refers to young urbanites who were sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ during that turbulent decade. Jingqiu, who had a difficult life after her father was labeled a ‘right-winger’, met and fell in love with the handsome Laosan, who had a better future because his father was a high-ranking military officer.
Like Jingqiu, Zhang dropped out of middle school and spent three years in the countryside due to his ‘unclear’ background; his father and uncles were all nationalists.
The idea of love in the 1970’s has attracted many of China’s post 80’s generation to the movie. They want to experience the forgotten ‘pure love’ of the previous generation. The innocence of that generation is laughable today. Many girls then thought they would be pregnant by kissing or lying on the same bed with a guy. It is this lost innocence that Zhang wants to capture.
The movie has performed well since its release in China. With a low production budget speculated to be just RMB20 million, the track record of unsurpassed profitability for every movie project produced by the partnership of Zhang and Zhang Weiping will remain intact. And there was the successful moon cake promotion. 3,000 limited edition boxes of hawthorn fruit moon cakes sold out in a flash and more had to be rushed to the market.
The two young stars, Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou are relative unknowns. The film is already confirmed as the opening film of the Pusan International Film Festival and the closing film at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Many in the industry see the 18 year-old Zhou as the aspiring new Zhang Ziyi. The 21 year-old Canadian-raised Dou showed sincerity and consistency in his performance. We will see more of them.
Under The Hawthorn Tree signals the return to simpler subject for Zhang but the ultra simple approach with supers as part of the story telling is new. It should pave the way for the romance genre to be a staple for at least the young cinema goers in China today.