ContactSales: Edko Films, Hong Kong (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Premiere: Pusan Film Festival (opening film), 7 Oct 2010. Theatrical release: China, 15 Sep 2010; Hong Kong, 11 Nov 2010.
Presented by Beijing New Picture Film (CN), IDG China Creative Media (CN), New Classics Entertainment (CN), Film Partner (2010) International (HK). Produced by Beijing New Picture (CN), IDG China Creative Media (CN), New Classical Entertainment (CN), Film Partner (2010) International (HK). Executive producers: Zhang Weiping, Hugo Shong, Cao Huayi, Bill Kong. Producers: Zhang Weiping, Hugo Shong, Cao Huayi, Bill Kong.
Script: Yin Lichuan, Gu Xiaobai, Amei. Shooting script: Xiao Kefan. Literary consultant: Zhou Xiaofeng. Internet novel: Ai Mi (Hawthorn Tree Forever, pub. 2007). Photography: Zhao Xiaoding. Editing: Meng Peicong. Music: Chen Qigang. Art direction: Wu Ming. Costumes: Ma Defan. Sound: Tao Jing, Steve Burgess. End song: Ryabina Kudryavaya.
Cast: Zhou Dongyu (Zhang Jingqiu), Shawn Dou (Sun Jianxin), Xi Meijuan (Mrs. Zhang, Jingqiu's mother), Li Xuejian (Village Head Zhang), Cheng Taishen (Luo), Sarina (Auntie), Lü Liping (Weihong's mother), Jiang Ruijia (Weihong, Jingqiu's friend), Yu Xinbo (Zhang Changlin), Yi Xinyun (Zhang Changfang), Sun Haiying (Jianxin's father), Qi Ke (Director Li), He Xiaoyu (Huanhuan), Wang Zheng (eldest brother), Yao Zhuoran (sister-in-law), Qiu Muyuan (Jingqiu's younger brother), Hu Xinyuan (Jingqiu's younger sister), Yao Li (Nurse Gao).
Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂樹之戀
Period love story
2010, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins
Directed by Zhang Yimou (張藝謀)
By Derek Elley
Mon, 27 September 2010, 18:41 PM (HKT)
A striking change of pace for director Zhang Yimou, with a sensitive love story during the Cultural Revolution. Largely Asian festivals, plus some specialised theatrical.
Yichang municipality, Hubei province, China, early 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, high-school student Zhang Jingqiu (Zhou Dongyu) is one of many urban "educated youth" sent to be "re-educated" through work in the countryside under a dictat from Chairman Mao. She arrives with a group in Xiping village, in the Yangtze River's Three Gorges region, where they are shown a hawthorn tree called the Tree of Heroes which was reputedly nourished by the blood of Chinese martyrs executed by the Japanese during WW2. Jingqiu is lodged with the family of village head Zhang (Li Xuejian), where she meets geology student Sun Jianxin (Shawn Dou) who also takes his meals at Zhang's home. Jianxin's father (Sun Haiying) is a high-up in the military but his mother committed suicide four years ago after being branded a "rightist"; Jing's father is a political prisoner somewhere in China and her mother (Xi Meijuan), a former teacher branded as a "capitalist", is now reduced to menial work to support Jingqiu and her younger brother and sister. Despite the fact that one mistake could further imperil the future of her and her family, Jingqiu falls in love with Jianxin, and their relationship continues after she graduates the following year. But she then hears a rumour that he has leukaemia.
It's easy to forget, among all the colourful spectacles like Hero 英雄 (2002) or Curse of the Golden Flower 滿城盡帶黃金甲 (2006), or Olympic ceremonies, operas and son-et-lumières that ZHANG Yimou 張藝謀 has directed during the past decade, that he remains a highly versatile filmmaker at heart. Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂樹之戀 (2010) is an abrupt reminder of the Zhang who also made the touchingly "simple" Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 千里走單騎 (2005), Happy Times 幸福時光 (2000) and The Road Home 我的父親母親 (1999), all love stories in their different ways. Hawthorn is one of a very small number of mainland Chinese melodramas (including SUN Zhou 孫周's remarkable Heartstrings 心香 (1992)) that's pitched at an almost purely metaphysical level — a film about the feeling of being in love for the first time, rather than just the physical sensation or story mechanics.
The Road Home, which launched young actress ZHANG Ziyi 章子怡's career at the age of 20, comes closest to Hawthorn in spirit, though the latter is a much more visually ascetic movie. (It seems amazing that Hawthorn's coolly precise images are from the same guy, ZHAO Xiaoding 趙小丁, who recently shot the much flashier Welcome to Shamatown 決戰剎馬鎮 (2010), True Legend 蘇乞兒 (2009) and Little Big Soldier 大兵小將 (2009), as well as Zhang Yimou's more operatic movies.) Whether Hawthorn will do the same for 18-year-old ballet student ZHOU Dongyu 周冬雨 what Road did for Zhang Ziyi remains to be seen, but it's fair to say that she's a considerable find, with a killer smile, a capacity for genuine pathos, and a much less knowing face than the younger Zhang Ziyi. She also pulls off the hardest trick nowadays, convincing a modern-day audience of absolute sexual naivety.
Zhou's high-school student Jingqiu is some way from the character in the source novel by Mainland writer Aimi 艾米: in the book she's a more buxom 16-year-old, with a self-centred, self-pitying side; in the movie she's slim and cute but also sincere and strong-willed, launching herself into a potentially tragic love story after what is virtually love at first sight. It's to Zhou's credit that she balances all these characteristics into a fully rounded character without ever seeming to wink at the audience. Readers of the book (which is now being translated into several languages) may be somewhat disappointed by this re-imagining of Jingqiu, but in the movie's own universe she makes absolute sense, helped by Zhang Yimou's restrained direction and good chemistry between Zhou and Canadian-raised Shawn DOU 竇驍 as the object of her affection. A newcomer like Zhou, the 21-year-old Dou makes a handsome, kindly love object but doesn't bring any special qualities to the part of the boyfriend that haven't been seen in other first-love dramas.
Based on the unpublished diaries of a real woman who later emigrated to the US, the novel was mooted as a project for several directors, and almost ended up being directed by YIN Lichuan 尹麗川 (The Park 公園 (2007), Knitting 牛郎織女 (2008)), who conflated three scripts by separate writers, including GU Xiaobai 顧小白 (The Red Awn 紅色康拜因 (2007)). In the end, the project passed from her to Zhang Yimou, whose deliberately "pure" approach to the love story — pushing Cultural Revolution politics to the back (or entirely off) of the screen — gives the movie an almost abstract, self-contained feel, heightened by the vagueness of its setting (somewhere near the Three Gorges in central China in the early '70s). Close-up inserts of hands almost touching — or the way in which a small event like Jingqiu spending a night with Jianxin in hospital is developed into a full sequence — increase the sense of emotional intimacy that pervades the movie. It also helps the basically thin storyline to sustain itself across almost two hours.
On other technical levels, from the restrained use of CHEN Qigang 陳其鋼's rising and falling love theme to WU Ming 武明's believable '70s art direction, the film is immaculately appointed. Where it falls short is in not quite delivering the emotional release some audiences will expect at the end: unlike in The Road Home, Zhang Yimou keeps the brakes on a little too long, and the flow of the film isn't helped by regular intertitles patching in developments.