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Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Shawn Dou, Xi Meijuan, Li Xuejian, Cheng Taishen, Sa Rina, Lv Liping, Jiang Ruijia, Yu Xinbo, Yi Xinyun, Sun Haiying, Qi Ke
RunTime: 1 hr 54 mins
Released By: GV
Rating: PG
Official Website:

Opening Day: 10 February 2011

Synopsis: Romance sparks between a young woman and a young man from different economic backgrounds during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s.

Movie Review:

You are more likely to associate the name Zhang Yimou with big-budget spectacles such as Hero (2002) or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) or even the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, but the Zhang Yimou of “Under the Hawthorn Tree” is better associated with the simpler but more meaningful dramas such as The Road Home (1999), Not One Less (2000) and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005). At first glance, this tale of romance may seem like no more than a trivial entry in arguably the most famous Chinese director’s filmography, but there is a beguiling simplicity to Yimou’s latest film that masks the powerful emotional wallop it packs.

Set during the Cultural Revolution of the ‘70s, this is the true story of a forbidden romance between the young teacher-in-training Zhang Jingqiu (newcomer Zhou Dongyu) and a handsome geology student Sun Jianxin (Shawn Dou), whom Jingqiu first meets at the Hubei village she visits as part of her re-education process. Their affections for each other are plainly obvious, but the social mores of their time- as defined by party ideology or more precisely Chairman Mao’s ideology- forbids them from dating openly. So instead they do so secretly, even as Jingqiu returns to the city and the price of their clandestine relationship becomes steeper.

While one may expect Yimou to use the backdrop as social critique, he avoids this altogether, using the Cultural Revolution politics insofar as to illuminate the wholesomeness of the young couple’s love for each other, from which both Jingqiu and Jianxin derive the courage and perseverance to keep their relationship going. Even without histrionics or grand displays of affection, this is a story of two people fighting for their right to love, fully aware that what they share is a heartfelt bond only they can wholly comprehend.

Theirs is also a love of simplicity, so there is significance to be found in simple gestures like holding hands or kissing, which unfortunately are often taken for granted in modern-day relationships and onscreen portrayals of the type. Yimou’s film emphasises their weight in an era when society was much more conservative, and the attention he pays to these plain yet potentially deeply meaningful gestures imbues the film with a gentle and tender sweetness.

Yet the film is wiser than to ignore the innate amorous impulses inevitable between young couples. Whereas many modern-day films often have little qualms portraying this as overt sexuality, the restraint of the times calls for a much subtler approach. Yimou builds this up slowly but surely- beginning with the couple frolicking in a lake with Jingqiu wearing a red swimsuit given by Jianxin, and culminating in their sharing of a hospital bed where Jianxin gently caresses Jingqiu right down to her vagina. This is as much a discovery of love for Jingqiu as an exploration of her budding sexuality, and Yimou handles the physical intimacy between the two characters gracefully.

Just as commendable is Yimou’s delicate treatment of the adult characters in the film, in particular Jingqiu’s mother (Xi Meijuan). It is her reprimand Jingqiu fears initially and her objection that keeps the couple apart later on. Yimou doesn’t vilify her character; instead, he makes clear the reason for her disapproval- Jingqiu’s father is a political prisoner and her mother branded a ‘capitalist’ so any inappropriate behaviour on Jingqiu’s part may very well destroy what future she has. The theatre thespian Meijuan rewards Yimou’s careful delineation of her character with an emphatic performance that is equal parts forceful and insightful.

Of course, as has been his knack, Yimou continues to draw outstanding performances from his leads. The 17-year-old high school ingénue Zhou Dongyu plucked from thousands of hopefuls is nothing less than a revelation, quite like the sensation Zhang Ziyi was in the director’s previous The Road Home. Zhou is utterly convincing as the young teenager besotted by true love but forced to deal with the societal realities she cannot escape from. Hers is a unadulterated performance of winsome beauty that you won’t be able to resist. The relative unknown Shawn Dou is just as charming as Jianxin, and the chemistry between the two actors an absolute delight.

Based on the Internet novel by Ai Mi (and adapted for the screen by Ai, Yin Lichuan and Gu Xiaobai), this latest Zhang Yimou film may be a departure from the loud, gaudy spectacle one has come to associate with him of late, but this is a quietly powerful film of immense emotional muscle. It is a throwback to a time when love was simpler but purer, stronger but no less gentler- by the time the symbol of the hawthorn tree as a metaphor of Jingqiu and Jianxin’s relationship becomes clear at the end of the film, you can be sure that its significance and therefore its poignancy will not be lost on you.

Movie Rating:

(An utterly beguiling story of first love that is guaranteed to move you)

Review by Gabriel Chong


. Mao's Last Dancer (2010)

. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009)

. Linger (2008)

. The Sun Also Rises (2007)

. Secret (2007)

. Little Red Flowers (2005)

. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)

. The Founding of a Republic DVD (2009)




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