Under the Hawthorn Tree

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 November, 2010, 12:00am

Starring: Zhou Dongyu, Shawn Dou Xiao, Xi Meijuan, Li Xuejian
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Category: IIA (Putonghua)

One of the world's most spectacular cinematic maestros masterfully eschews spectacle for a touching look at young love during the Cultural Revolution.

A marked departure from last year's flashy A Simple Noodle Story and the even flashier 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony, Zhang Yimou's Under the Hawthorn Tree is suffused with the tenderness found in his more pared-down Not One Less (1999) and The Road Home (2000). A tear-jerker that, apart from its finale, avoids becoming maudlin, it subtly recreates a tumultuous era that defines but never overwhelms the human story at the movie's centre.

One suspects the motif's innocence and earnestness not only come from its source, a memoir by Ai Mi (who co-wrote the script with Yin Lichuan and Gu Xiaobai), but also the concomitance that in the early 1970s the director was a similar age to its young protagonist, geologist Sun Jianxin (Shawn Dou, right). The picture traces the simultaneously chaste and passionate relationship between Sun and Jingqiu (Zhou Dongyu, left), a high-school student who, like millions of others, is sent to the countryside to learn from peasants.

The boy and girl come from different class backgrounds (his father is a high-ranking cadre, hers is a 'rightist' banished to a labour camp). The movie makes clear the manner in which the pervasive ideological climate determines every aspect of their existence, but, in doing so, the director never goes for the obvious or sensational. The oppressive feeling is palpable, expressed most forcefully by Jingqiu's harried mother (a skilfully restrained portrayal by Xi Meijuan). Yet there are also unadorned joys and an intensity of emotion shorn of material and corporeal indulgences.

Aided by the striking visuals of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, Zhang evocatively recreates a period that exacted a horrible human toll but has assumed a nostalgic glow in light of the very different excesses of today's China. The details of everyday life are spot-on, from Maoist paraphernalia to the peeling of an apple. At the same time the setting is disconcertingly sanitised, spotless and devoid of spitters and smokers.

Throughout, the director once again shows that he is not only a supreme stylist and mesmeric storyteller but a prescient spotter of new talent. This marks the debut of the two youthful leads and both inhabit their characters with conviction and utter believability. It will take another role to determine whether teenage Zhou is really good or merely playing herself, but 21-year-old Dou, a Beijing Film Academy student, may well become Zhang's first male discovery to achieve bona fide stardom.

Under the Hawthorn Tree opens today