Youthful passion and faithful devotion are lovingly depicted in Zhang Yimou’s “Under The Hawthorn Tree.” In the vein of the exquisite mellers (“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” “The Road Home”) the helmer delivers between flashy epics, this tender, understated romancer touches the heart with a disarming, almost stealthy sweetness. Buoyed by pleasing perfs from young newcomers Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou, pic has garnered more than 83 million yuan ($13.4 million) in China since mid-September release; other Asian territories will embrace the film, but less enthusiastically. After fest play, international prospects will be limited to Zhang’s loyal arthouse following.
Set during the Cultural Revolution in the early ’70s, story begins as sparrow-like teacher-in-training Jing (Zhou) journeys to Xiping, a village in Hubei province, as part of her re-education process. En route, Jing is shown an iconic Hawthorn tree that, according to local legend, blooms with red flowers, since it grew in soil enriched by the blood of Chinese soldiers fighting Japanese invaders.
During her stay in the village, Jing falls for the rustic charms of handsome geology student Sun (Dou). Though entranced by Sun’s passionate overtures, the chaste teenager is caught between romantic impulse and the discretion the turbulent times require.
Amid omnipresent images of Chairman Mao, the era’s paranoia is personified by Jing’s mother (Xi Meijuan), who, having already lost her husband (a political priosner), is vigilant about controlling her immature daughter and her habit of drawing attention to herself. When Jing returns home and her mother finds out about the blossoming romance, she insists they separate until Jing completes her teacher training at age 25. Jing is initially compliant, but the strain of separation begins to show as she learns of a disturbing rumor.
Script, based on an Internet novel by Ai Mi (who adapted her work with Yin Lichuan and Gu Xiaobai), teases with the possibility that Sun is not all that he seems, and expertly milks both sadness and joy from Jing’s naivete. Less overtly political than helmer’s 1994 Gong Li starrer, “To Live,” which was also set during the social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, this gentle love story still offers some meaty subtext for auds willing to read between the lines (in between tissues).
In a role that has distant echoes of a performance by the helmer’s earlier thesping discovery Zhang Ziyi (no relation) in 1999’s “The Road Home,” Zhou reps the film’s enchanting powerhouse; winning thesp utterly convinces as a young woman whose sheltered life cannot protect her from love’s sometimes bitter disappointments. Dou effectively complements Zhou with his portrayal of a man whose devotion knows no bounds, and Xi impresses with her zealous portrayal of Jing’s protective and suspicious mother.
Zhang’s restrained direction embraces an old-fashioned, literary style that includes elliptical fades to black and transitional intertitles; muted colors used by the helmer’s regular d.p., Zhao Xiaoding, is in keeping with the film’s understatement. Score by Chen Qigang, with its emphatic use of the guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither-like instrument, is artful in its spare simplicity.