Under the Hawthorn Tree--Film Review
"Under the Hawthorn Tree," is without question Zhang Yimou's simplest work. The tale of pure young love set during the Cultural Revolution is laid back and lushly shot, with any sexual passion or political overtones exiled to the narrative margins.
Even though the storyline closely resembles '80s Korean love tragedies, the film is not unabashedly romantic. There's timorousness in the lovers' innocence and repression in their modesty, which signals a throwback to the more conservative characterization and film grammar of pre-5th-generation directors.
An older age group, especially if they like Zhang's "The Road Home," enjoy "Hawthorn"'s wholesomeness as much as visiting an organic farm. Japan would be the most receptive market. For a youth film, it is so stuck in Zhang's arrested nostalgia for his own salad days, that contemporary Chinese youngsters probably won't connect to it. Acceptable domestic box office is possibly on its way to reaching $14 million.
Adapted from a true story, novelized by Aimi, "Hawthorn" is typical of China in the '70s. Jingqiu (Zhou Dongyu), who is in her last year of high school, is "sent down" to Xiping Village to learn from the peasants, and to conduct research for the school curriculum. She gets to know another "zhiqing" (young city-born intellectual) Sun Jianxing, who's in the geological unit.
Sun takes an instant liking to Jingqiu and courts her with little gifts and frequent visits.
After Jingqiu returns to the city, she and Sun begin to date secretly. However, since her father is in a re-education camp for being a "Rightist," she is under tremendous pressure to be on best behavior during her probation as a teacher. The couple's pact to see the blossoming of a hawthorn tree (the landmark of Xiping Village) becomes a symbol of their longing and loyalty.
The film's promotion tagline is "the cleanest romance in history." Indeed, Zhang's touch is rarely so delicate in describing the pre-pubescent looking Jingqiu's perplexity and embarrassment toward Sun's advances, as well as her naivety (she thinks sharing a bed is enough to cause pregnancy). In fact, a deep sexual undercurrent rippling under their blushing complexions -- when she frolics with him in the pond, wearing the red swimsuit he gave her, when he bandages her feet, or when they lie down together in the hospital bed (his hand goes straight to where it counts). That is what lends the film its beauty.
Zhou, who is a 17-year-old high school student plucked from thousands of teenage hopefuls, personifies the film -- fresh as cut grass, untainted by professional training. She exudes serene calm even as the melodrama intensifies. The film unfolds mostly from a feminine perspective. As a result, Sun's character is rendered at a remove, and he is too perfect to be more than a cipher.
Almost religious devotion to objects prevails, with a light bulb or a foot basin acquiring symbolic significance as love tokens. The meticulous evocation of period detail reflects the film's elegiac attitude to ephemera. What it mourns most is not the transience of youth or of love, but the transience of happiness, especially when its harmless pursuit is systematically obstructed by collective ideology. Perhaps that is why it ends with such an aching sense of loss.
The narrative structure is strictly linear, organized by old fashioned intertitles of quotations from Aimi's novel, thus giving the film a fusty, literary feel. Production quality is top drawer, especially the lighting, which bestows radiance on every inch of Zhou's translucent young skin.