Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Shawn Dou, Xi Meijuan
Plot: Romance sparks between a young woman and a young man from different economic backgrounds during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s.
Genre: Drama / Romance
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
After the debacle that was A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (2009), a disappointing remake of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984), Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou restores his reputation with his latest effort that is a nostalgic throwback to the pre-Hero period in the nineties that made the director one of the few Asian masters of the dramatic form.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is clearly not Zhang at the top of his game, but it is a reminder of his talent in crafting powerful tearjerkers set in the various turbulent eras of China’s modern history.
Hawthorn Tree is similar to The Road Home (2000) in approach. It is a beautiful love story acted out by a competent cast, at times playful, at times emotional, but never too overtly sentimental. This is especially so for Hawthorn Tree, which some have described as “the purest love story ever told”, and I believe it just might be true.
I have not seen a filmmaker approach the near-ancient notion of “love at first sight” and “the blossoming of a boy-girl romance” with such purity and subtlety in direction and narration in years.
Zhang has unearthed a new acting gem in Zhou Dongyu, a young actress who may just be the next “Gong Li”, that is if she continues to place herself under the director’s radar for the next decade. Like Zhang Ziyi, who similarly made her debut in The Road Home, Zhou’s acting is striking because she balances restrain with her natural ability to emote, the latter very potently displayed in the film’s final act. Her chemistry with the male lead, played by Shawn Dou, who is also a newcomer, is strong enough for Zhang to heavily rely on to engage viewers.
As always for every Zhang film, the cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding (an Oscar nominee for House of Flying Daggers (2004)), is stunning, as the film captures and juxtaposes the misty villages with dusty urban buildings in great visual detail.
Admirers of Zhang’s visual style however would notice that Hawthorn Tree does not feature the flamboyant colors that characterize most of his works such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Hero (2002), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Yes, the color palette is more muted here, and there is a reason for it.
I would think Zhang desires to paint a more poetic picture rather than being unnecessarily grandeur. After all, this is a film about the innocence of first love. With Under the Hawthorn Tree, Zhang has made a romance picture that is not only memorable for the star performance by Zhou, but also admirable for the film’s artful simplicity.