Zhou Dongyu plays Jingqiu in Zhang Yimou's new film The Love of the
Hawthorn Tree, after being picked by the director from more than 10,000
young women. Photos provided to China Daily
Dou Xiao plays the son of a general, Laosan,
in the new film.
Director Zhang Yimou looked far and wide for a woman who was not only pretty but also could portray innocence for the lead role in his new film, Liu Wei reports
Successful as Zhang Yimou is, he still has to work hard to find his Ms Right. In casting for his new film, The Love of the Hawthorn Tree, Zhang interviewed more than 10,000 young women.
The novel is called "the most innocent love story" by its numerous fans, and Zhang was looking for a woman who was not only pretty but also could portray innocence for the role of Jingqiu, the heroine of the tale.
"She is not shaped to be innocent, and she does not know her beauty yet," Zhang says in a video the production company New Picture Film provides to China Daily.
Set in 1975, a year before the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the novel follows the melancholy romance between the shy girl, Jingqiu, from a grassroots family and Laosan, the son of a general.
The gap between their social status and the depressive atmosphere of that era provide a counterpoint to their emotions.
Zhang sent several teams led by his assistant directors to major acting schools in Beijing, such as the Beijing Film Academy, the Central Academy of Drama and the Communication University of China. The scouts stayed in these schools for weeks, but of the candidates they suggested, Zhang's most frequent comment was "not even close".
The search spread to six other cities around the country. The assistant directors videotaped every girl they thought might qualify for the role in various schools and brought thousands of video clips to Zhang.
With the first day of shooting fast approaching, and the cast and crew were starting to get anxious. Zhang asked some of the potential candidates to come to Beijing for auditions but found them to be uninspiring.
Because the assistant directors kept it secret they were casting for a Zhang Yimou film, many women were reluctant to travel to Bejing for an audition. A woman turned down assistant director Zang Qiwu's offer three times before she told Zang her parents did not want her to do it. Zang called the woman's parents and they said: "Do not talk about an audition. Are you sure you will cast my daughter? If not, we won't go."
The final choice was Zhou Dongyu, a 19-year-old high school student from Hebei province with no previous acting experience.
Zhou was taking an admission exam in Nanjing Art Institute when discovered by Zhang's scouts. The girl from an ordinary workers' family was chosen because her eyes were "as clean as a mountain fountain". Her teacher describes her as quiet, shy and with good manners.
Zhou has kept her new role low key in school and has given up on the university entrance examination she should have taken in June.
According to Zhang Weiping, the film's producer and Zhang Yimou's filming partner since the 1990s, Zhou has signed a contract with New Picture Film to become a professional actress. Zhang Weiping says he will support the girl's decision if she wants to apply for acting schools later.
Starring in a Zhang Yimou film is almost a guaranteed passport to stardom or at least a different life. The best known examples are Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Other "Mou's girls" include Dong Jie in Happy Times and Wei Minzhi, a rural girl who plays a teacher in Zhang's Not One Less when she was 13 and is a director herself now.
Hawthorn Tree is Zhang's first romantic story in 10 years. The last one was the 1999 film The Road Home, Zhang Ziyi's big-screen debut. She rose to be a household name overnight.
Zhang's choice has won both criticism and plaudits from the book's author and hardcore fans.
Gao Mumu, a PR manager and fan of the book, thinks Zhou too thin for the role of Jingqiu as in the book she is pleasantly plump. But she agrees that her air of innocence is very impressive.
Aimi, the book's author, told China Youth Daily that she envisioned someone different as the girl should be "innocent" instead of "silly".
The film will premiere on Sept 16.