"These young folks are looking worse and worse with each generation. Pretty girls obviously aren't marrying handsome guys these days. They're hooking up with this sugar daddy and that old lonely bachelor with money. No wonder the kids are lacking in the looks department.
When you look at any picture of young Chinese women from the 60s and 70s period, you'll almost always have an eager face that radiates innocent beauty looking back at you. This is now a thing of the past, young folks rarely have that innocence about them any more."
I'm a BIG fan of Zhang Yimou's common people films. I love his nostalgic looks at the past and his thinly veiled commentaries on the Cultural Revolution and cultural change in general, in China. But Zhang seems to have tossed this one off before finishing a proper script. Title cards are used to fill in narrative gaps (red flag) and to allow for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip, pouting, and looking like the innocent beauty Zhang craves. I think the need for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip and pouting suggests he didn't find it.
The film is adapted from a popular mainland novel which was based on a true story set during the Cultural Revolution. There's lots of good stuff and great attention to detail concerning the period, and it satisfied my desire for that. There's a pretty standard love story plopped on top of it all, complete with a terminal disease tuggin at your heart strings. But not just any old love story, it's a Japanese styled "pure love" love story. That part is fine as well. A little Korean style melodrama mixed with Japanese pure love stylings works for me most of the time. So why didn't I love this movie?
Honestly, the title cards bothered me. Not just because the girl bit her lip and pouted going into many of them (which got on my nerves as well), but because they gave the film an unfinished quality. It's difficult to remain completely faithful to a novel when adapting it for the big screen, and just as voiceover narration can be used successfully to fill in narrative gaps or it can stick out like a sore thumb, so go the title cards.
Sticks out like a sore thumb.
To be fair, dancer and senior high school girl, Zhou Dongyu, from Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, with “eyes that are clear like the mountain springs”, is pretty fetching as the young girl who is sent to re-education camp and falls in love with an upwardly mobile land prospector. The film's theme of with whom and when one falls in love being up to the discretion of Communist Party leaders is far more tragic than the terminal disease. Shawn Dou Xiao is outrageously handsome and appealing as the young man who falls in love with her.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is delicately shot and filled with wonderful period detail. My final waffling verdict is: It's a beautiful and tragic love story with some distracting blemishes. If Zhang Yimou had spent as much time fleshing out a proper screenplay as he did finding a girl to play the lead character he might have produced another masterpiece. I recommend the film to those who like pure love stories.
Starring: Dongyu Zhou, Shawn Dou, Taisheng Chen, Rina Sa, Xuejian Li