Story of an age of innocence simply told

By Liu Wei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-07 09:33
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Zhang Yimou, who directed the lavish opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, also knows less is more.

In Under the Hawthorn Tree, to be released on Sept 16, it is hard to find his imprint. It is not like a Zhang Yimou film.

For instance, there is no stunning color.

The cinematographer-turned director has been acclaimed for his bold use of colors ever since his maiden work, Red Sorghum, in 1987. Red was his favorite color again in Raise the Red Lantern, four years later.

The obsession with visual wonder reached a peak in last year's slapstick comedy A Simple Noodle Story, in which all the characters wear at least five colors.

Hawthorn Tree seems to show that, for Zhang, gray is the new red. The whole film, except for the end, seems shot with a bluish-gray filter. Plain may be a cruel word, but it best describes the tone.

Zhang may be attempting to resonate with the film's background - it happens during the "cultural revolution" (1967-77), when China was full of persecutions.

There is no superstar.

Story of an age of innocence simply told
The lovers, played by Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou, in Zhang Yimou's new film Under the Hawthorn Tree. Provided to China Daily
Those expecting a stellar cast such as the one for Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower will be disappointed.

The leading actor and actress of this Chinese version of Love Story are both first-timers to the big screen.

Lead actress Zhou Dongyu is an 18-year-old student who was attending the entrance exam for an art college in Nanjing when one of Zhang's assistant directors found the director's "Miss Right".

Zhou is far less stunning than "Mou girl" Gong Li, but faithful to the character, an innocent young girl who thinks lying on a bed with a man will make her pregnant.

As a new actress she does a good job, or merely successfully conveys the misunderstandings of her age. If there is any criticism to make it is that she looks too young to be involved in a relationship.

Shawn Dou, 21, acts opposite her. The Beijing Film Academy student does not act as well, but his sincerity and devotion to the character of a natural Romeo is apparent.

There is no dramatic plot.

Remember the intrigues among concubines in Raise the Red Lantern and the palace conspiracy between king and queen in Curse of the Golden Flower?

There is only puppy love here.

Except for the melodramatic ending, the film unfolds in a slow and poetic way, interspersed by episodes of a teenage tale. It is all about the first time - the first sight, first hand holding and first kiss. The first exploration of what sex is just stops at something that could barely be called a caress.

Similar to the heroine, Zhang dropped out of middle school and spent three years in the countryside due to his "unclear" background - his father and uncles were all Nationalists.

It is not hard to tell what Zhang's complex take on the era is - it was a dark chapter in the country's history when people's political backgrounds determined their fate, yet also a time when people loved just for love's sake.

Instead of nostalgia or denial, Zhang chooses to present the poetic side of the era.

It is a film that seems too easy for a veteran filmmaker such as Zhang to make. But, on the other hand, it must also be difficult to do something different, which is what Zhang has achieved.