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Zhang Yimou continues his genre-hopping career reinvention by following up his western remake “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” with “Under the Hawthorn Tree”. Based on a novel by Ai Mi, the film is a romantic drama set during the Cultural Revolution, focusing on the pure love and misfortunes of a young couple played by Shawn Dou and the gorgeous Zhou Dongyu. With both stars making their debuts, the film sees Zhang returning to the humanist territory of his earlier films “The Road Home” and “Not one Less”, taking a simple story and enhancing it with genuine warmth, a keen eye for period detail and plenty of misty eyed emotion and nostalgia.
The film follows Zhou Dongyu as Jing Qiu, a high school senior who is sent to the countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution re-education movement to live and work with a family in a mountain village. With her father having been jailed as a rightist and her sickly mother frequently accused as a capitalist, Jing is very keen to fit in, and starts work on a textbook on a local hawthorn tree which is said to have grown from the blood of revolutionary martyrs who died for the cause. While there she meets and pursued by Sun (Shawn Dou), a kind and humorous young man with a bright future in the party, and the two slowly and chastely fall in love, hiding their relationship from disapproving parents and the authorities.
“Under the Hawthorn Tree” really is the polar opposite to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, not to mention the majority other grandiose productions with which he made his name on the international stage. Quietly told through a series of encounters and events, with most of its revelations and narrative leaps being related through title cards rather than onscreen drama, the film is a wonderfully gentle and delicate affair which aims to convey its emotions through mood and atmosphere as much as dialogue. The film certainly has a very strong, though subtle visual component, with a convincing and appealing recreation of the period that makes for an air of wistfulness, showing great use of the silently magnificent rural scenery without any obvious panoramic shots.
This low-key approach actually fits very well with the central romance, which itself is characterised by hesitancy and unspoken affections, the physical attraction between Jing and Sun being all the more powerful for its being kept in check. Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou are both excellent in their roles, with a real chemistry between them, much of their relationship being expressed very effectively through simple gestures and looks. The film has a markedly unforced, almost innocent charm, and though it never strays too far from the predictable path it’s affecting in a way which many might not have thought Zhang capable.
Also somewhat surprising is the fact that the Cultural Revolution setting is never really exploited for anything more than a backdrop, simply representing a time of change in Chinese society. Although the script does tackle a number of fairly weighty issues, depicting how the lives and loves of everyday people were thrown into confusion by the tumultuous politics of the time, it focuses firmly on the human angle and aims for intimacy rather than social commentary. Thankfully, Zhang doesn’t go too far in the other direction either, and the film’s setting isn’t whitewashed or turned into the kind of propagandist style message seen in other mainstream Chinese genre films.
It’s really a shame that “Under the Hawthorn Tree” may not get the same kind of exposure as some of Zhang Yimou’s other films, as it’s arguably his best for some time, and one which serves as a fine reminder that he is a director capable of far more than mere spectacle. The film is easily one of the best Chinese romances or nostalgia pieces of late, benefitting from a refined quietness and ingenuous humanity that captivates wholly throughout.
Yimou Zhang (director) / Ai Mi (novel “Hawthorn Tree Forever”), Lichuan Yin, Xiaobai Gu, Mei Ah (screenplay)
CAST: Dongyu Zhou