The Wild Strawberries 野草莓
2010, colour, 1.85:1, 99 mins
Directed by Chen Bing (陳兵)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 26 June 2011, 19:09 PM (HKT)
Unadorned tale of a "pure love" during the Cultural Revolution stumbles only at the final fence. Asian events.
Northeast China, 1971, during the Cultural Revolution. At a time of heightened military tension between China and the Soviet Union following the 1969 Zhenbao Island Incident, soldier Jiao Mingliang is accidentally killed while rescuing a young boy, Li Duoduo, during the collapse of an air-raid shelter. His widow, young Luo Xuemei (Zhou Chuchu), is co-opted by the Red Army authorities into making heroic propaganda out of his death by hastily staging an opera, using music from other model operas. Later, while working at the Red Star Munitions Factory, Xuemei meets handsome Zhu Fuzhong (Shang Yubo), a weapons tester, who had earlier written her an anonymous letter sympathising with her exploitation, and the two start a clandestine affair. Factory director Du Yuchun (Dong Jiang), a widower with a nine-year-old son, asks her to participate in radio broadcasts with Zhao Haiqiang (Shawn Xiao). When she turns down Du's offer of marriage and promotion, Du forces her hapless fellow worker, Li Xianling (Andy Sun), to spy on her and Fuzhong.
Quietly shot at the same time as ZHANG Yimou 張藝謀's Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂樹之戀 (2010), and set during the same period of the Cultural Revolution, The Wild Strawberries 野草莓 (2010) is a similar portrayal of "pure love" but has a very different feel. Zhang's slicker production values and focus on tiny details make Hawthorn the superior, more finessed production; but Strawberries, after an uncertain start, also weaves its own distinctive spell through more mature performances and a simpler directorial style.
Adapted from a 2001 short story by SUN Chunping 孫春平, a northeast-based writer of Manchurian descent — though actually shot for convenience around Chongqing in central China — Strawberries is set in the middle of the Cultural Revolution when there was a real possibility of war between China and the Soviet Union. With no large-scale scenes, and most set around a decrepit factory, the film makes a virtue of its modest production values in sketching the simplicity of life during the era in a very realistic way, with its spartan values and sealed-off way of life. The central love affair — at odds with the highly conservative moral climate of the time — thus gains in strength, with even the barest physical contact (such as in Xuemei and Fuzhong's first breathless dalliance) gaining in power.
The mise-en-scene by writer-director CHEN Bing 陳兵, a vice-professor at Beijing Film Academy making his first feature, is of the simplest kind, with plain, single shots, throwing emphasis on the textured photography by Alex SHI 史岳 (Soundless Wind Chime 無聲風鈴 (2009)) and the main performances. TV-theatre actor SHANG Yubo 尚於博 makes a quietly virile male lead and, in her first leading role, 25-year-old Sichuan-born actress ZHOU Chuchu 周楚楚 (Gangster Rock 混混天團 (2010)) makes a responsive young widow without over-drawing the character's dilemma of being used by the authorities for propaganda purposes.
More's the shame, then, that the film blows its credentials with a brief epilogue set 30 years later that's entirely at odds with the subtlety of the previous 90 minutes. This jarring section could easily be eliminated, turning Strawberries back into a 7/10 movie. Though the story starts around the turn of the '60s/'70s, during the Zhenbao Island Incident, internal evidence points to it stretching to a few years later, as posters advertise The White Haired Girl 白毛女 (1972) and the leads at one point watch The Scout 偵察兵 (1974) by LI Wenhua 李文化.
ContactSales: China Film Promotion International, Beijing (email@example.com)
Premiere: Macau International Movie Festival, Dec 2010. Theatrical release: TBA.
Produced by Beijing Youth Film Studio (CN), Beijing Dream Garden International Cultural Development (CN), Dragon King International (CN). Executive producers: Xu Xiangyun, Cui Zien. Producers: Chen Bing, Zhang Teng.
Script: Cui Zien, Chen Bing. Short story: Sun Chunping (The Secret Love/Underground Love 地下愛情, 2001). Photography: Alex Shi. Editing: Qian Lingling. Music: Zhao Ting. Art direction: Cao Anjun. Costumes: Zhang Yue. Sound: Sarah Sha. Executive director: Wang Liao.
Cast: Zhou Chuchu (Luo Xuemei), Shang Yubo (Zhu Fuzhong), Dong Jiang (Du Yuchun, factory director), Yang Dong (Yang Chang), Shawn Xiao (Zhao Haiqiang), Andy Sun (Li Xianling).