[ Spoilermeter: I'm going to talk about one or two memorable scenes here and there but I am not going to tell you what happens in the end. Either way, I am sure you will enjoy the film's back-to-basics storytelling in the bestest of ways. ]
Why is it that we are often moved by the simplest things?
For a while, I was concerned with legendary Chinese director and film maker Zhang Yi Mou seemingly really only making Asian movies that the Western audience wanted to see. But then, I watched Under The Hawthorn Tree.
His 2002 martial arts epic Hero is unquestionably one of my favourite movies of all time. ALOT of it has to do with Tony and Maggie, but the film itself is also a breathtaking visual masterpiece, with Zhang executing his trademark obsession with colour symbolism in the most glorious of fashion— it felt practically gluttonous ooh-ooh-aah-aah-ing through each and every single scene. When I look at it though, given the curiosity that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had generated amongst the Western audience, the timing of Hero was undeniably there to attract further international attention to the wuxia genre.
Zhang went on to make House Of Flying Daggers and Curse Of The Golden Flower, both of which were undeniably gorgeous to look at and truly exemplified the director’s impeccable skill in faceting emotions through colour on our screen. However, as grand as the productions were, both films failed to connect with me on any sort of level other than merely being something there to be visually appreciated. The heavy political overtones and the often overworked, lacking-in-chemistry acting (sorry Your Royal Hotness Kaneshiro Takeshi. Oh, and Jay Chou in period costume? *cue John McEnroe‘s vocals* You can’t be serious~~) really created little reason for me to believe that Zhang hadn’t been distracted by the allure of the Hollywood market.
It wasn’t until recently when I heard about his 2010 film Under The Hawthorn Tree that I realised I had been being slightly ignorant. So please, accept my apologies, Director Zhang. In between the aforementioned (IHMO, lacklustre) historical swordplay epics, Zhang did produce and direct a lesser known film titled Riding Alone For A Thousand Miles, an intimate tale about a Japanese father who embarks on a journey on foreign land to rekindle his relationship with his dying son. I am yet to watch it, however I have very solid plans to because from the sounds of things, the film trails back to elements from his earlier works such as The Road Home, encapsulating exactly what I believe Director Zhang is best at doing— depicting the gentlest, most genuine side of humanity, and making us fall for all the vulnerabilities.
This is exactly what Under The Hawthorn Tree did with me.
Based on the 2007 novel Hawthorn Tree Forever by Chinese author Ai Mi, Under The Hawthron Tree is the story of an ill-fated romance between two young lovers during the Cultural Revolution. The film is delicately shot, with Zhang highlighting the rural beauty of China using the most straightforward of camera work, capturing scenes at wide-angle and allowing the chastity of nature to simply be. The colours, muted, predominately Earth-toned and somewhat grainy, along with the understated but wistful soundtrack, only served to enhance the nostalgia that came along with enjoying the beauty of the film.
This minimalistic backdrop provided the perfect canvas for the actors to do what all good actors do— make us truly see and feel the characters. Having zero acting experience prior to Hawthorn, Zhou Dong Yu (reportedly hand-picked from thousands of teenage hopefuls by Director Zhang to take on the lead role) reaffirms to me that sometimes having “training in acting” really is unimportant. I did have a small beef with the way she would bite her lip (usually when she was crying,) however casting that aside, there is no doubt Zhou Dong Yu is the shining star in the movie. The young actress artlessly delivers an untainted, heartfelt performance that leaves the viewer convinced her character Zhang Jing Qiu is every bit the innocent, dutiful and resilient high school girl (and that skin, wow, youth really does prove invincible!)
Under Chairman Mao‘s command, Jing Qiu finds herself temporarily relocated from the city to Xi Ping Village in the party’s propagandistic hopes of having her “re-educated.” Within moments of the film beginning, we see Jing Qiu and a group of fellow comrades gathered under a hawthorn tree proudly named by the Communists as “The Tree Of Heroes.” What makes the tree so special is that its blossoms are atypically red, which they claim to be emblematic of the bloodstain of the Chinese martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the country during World War II. Such historical and political allusions aren’t at all uncommon in a Zhang Yi Mou but, while there are several quietly projected symbolisms throughout the rest of the film, this is pretty much as weighty as such affairs go. Hawthorn remains subtle in its social commentary and chooses to focus more on the love between the our lead characters and the obstacles that they face. And while it can be a constant reminder of the unsettling times that our characters were fighting to stay alive in, for me, the tree stands to represent a love and a hope unfulfilled.
It is in the country where Jing Qu meets our leading man, geology student Sun Jian Xin (who is referred to as Sun in the story,) and as you would have it, there is an immediate attraction (handsome boy + pretty girl = it’s a freaking no-brainer really.) And there’s no turning back. The challenges they face will give any Korean Melodrama Queen a run for their money but unlike some of the K-dramas of yesteryear that come to mind, everything that threatens to force Jing Qu and Sun apart doesn’t make you even slightly question their feasibility. Not once. Their adversities are 100% believable. For the Chinese audience in particular, it works because Jing Qiu‘s scenario rings so true to many girl’s hearts. I know I’m not the only one when I confess that I was personally “banned” from having a boyfriend during high school, just like my mother was in her younger days. Anything that didn’t directly relate to academics was viewed as a distraction to the “future,” and as the way that Jing Qiu‘s mother unbendingly insists on her daughter and Sun not seeing each other shows, this is the reality that many, if not, most, adolescent girls from traditional Chinese families continue to have to abide by.
In possibly what was my favourite scene, Jing Qiu‘s mother, Jing Qiu and Sun are sitting in Jing Qiu‘s home, which was essentially just four walls and very minimal furnishings. Jing Qiu‘s mother had pulled them inside the house after catching them gleefully riding a bicycle through town together, and was now making her intentions for her daughter— and their family— lucidly clear. She wanted Jing Qiu to concentrate on her career to ultimately put their household in a better economic position in society. In her eyes, falling in love would no doubt clutter the ambitions she had for Jing Qiu. She is uncompromising about it, and to be honest, logically, for the sake of survival, it seemed the only choice. But as we all know, the heart has and never will be ruled by logic. Sun agrees not to see Jing Qiu again but before he leaves, he makes one request to Jing Qiu‘s mother— to allow him to re-apply the bandage that had come loose from Jing Qiu‘s over-worked, infected feet (mind you, they had just come from the hospital so this was the bandage work of a professional nurse we’re talking about. My immediate thoughts were: Hontouni ? As if it would’ve unravelled so quickly ? Didn’t you guys ride a bike home as well ? But alas, what comes out of this scene kills any rationale anyone may have for… anything really~) Jing Qiu‘s mother responds, “Our house is small, there isn’t much space to give you privacy here,” and turns her back to return to making batches of envelopes to sell. Jian Xin gratefully replies, “No, that’s not a problem at all!” and leaps out of his seat to tend to Jing Qiu‘s tiny feet. He takes her shoes off and gingerly begins to re-bandage them, not once looking up at her, but gaaahh *heart breaks into a million pieces* Even without seeing his face, you could still feel every drop of his tears, and every inch of the sadness.
And that’s a beautiful face by the way. Shawn Dou as the undyingly loyal and respectful boyfriend— heck, undyingly loyal and respectful human being— almost too good to be true. He definitely has a new noona fan in me *busty grin* (but why do the cute boys just keep getting younger and younger? O_olll) I’m not going to lie, at some stages I did think his character was borderline creepy (the way that he would just reveal he had been watching Jing Qiu from afar without her knowing for, like, 20million hours >_>;;;) but the actor’s incredible charm (and maybe those chiselled cheekbones,) plus the chemistry between him and Zhou Dong Yu, will simply just sweep you away. Sun does everything for Jing Qiu and says all the things that a girl would want to hear, and the thing is, he actually means them. It’s not merely a testosterone-fuelled strategy to get into the girl’s pants— every bit of Sun‘s heart and soul devotedly cared for Jing Qiu. His vitality depended on Jing Qiu‘s well-being, and he would never violate her into doing something she didn’t feel comfortable with. And Jing Qiu was just as devoted to Sun as well. She was every bit as supportive and went out of her way to do things to show that she appreciated him just the same.
It was definitely this tender passion between them that fluttered my senses in a way that most of the current crop of movies of the romance genre fail to achieve. Love where holding hands is a big deal, love where simply seeing the other from afar is enough to make you smile, love that doesn’t necessitate sex, love that barely leads to a kiss… it’s not something the younger generation may be accustomed to but for me, the restraint between Jing Qiu and Sun aroused every little bit of my heart. Love doesn’t need to go through triangles and quadrangles and other boys and girls swooping in to test and prove its truth or its worth. It can simply be about two people, and Zhang Yi Mou understands this. For all that I lament on some of his more recent works, Under The Hawthorn Tree reinstates my faith by going back to the basics and reminds me just why I came to like the director in the first place.
It may not be his biggest box office success, nor is it necessarily his technically most perfectly executed piece of work, but for me, Under The Hawthorn Tree is probably the most beautifully romantic and earnestly touching.
I certainly don’t regret any of the friggin’ tears.
Now how could I leave you without sharing some well-earned and well-deserved eye-candy (labouring through infinite tumblr pages is a hard job!)? Boy does Mr Shawn Dou scrub up nicely. Some are saying he resembles 2PM rapper boy Taecyeon, which I can definitely see, but at some angles during Under The Hawthorn Tree when he was smiling like a goose, I saw a bit of Ju Ji Hoon. Not too bad of a combination I say. Anyways, I morphed a couple of my favourite photos of him into desktop wallies. Also throwing in a couple featuring shots from the film itself too (simply because I couldn’t resist the panoramic gorgeousness Director Zhang spoiled us with.) Enjoy :)