One of my girlfriends in high school had super-strict parents. Not only was she required to be home by the ungodly hour of 8 p.m. every night, she was allowed no boys in her life, and her dad even forbade her to smile and say “thank you” to the delivery guy. On the other hand, this girl recognized the value of restrictions. The more her parents tightened the screws, the closer she and her secret boyfriend became. The relationship lasted all through high school, while everyone else went through two-month cycles and whined about it.
A similar thing happens in “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” though on a much grander scale. Set in China’s Cultural Revolution era of the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a tale of first love and subsequent angst so high on melodrama you need a cleaver to slice through its thick, syrupy ambience. It’s all there: the restrictions, the tribulations and punishments that all serve to stoke the fire of love. Just getting a simple note into the hand of the loved one requires strategic maneuvering and a lot of legwork. This leads me to surmise that the advent of various social networks will bring about the official death of the secret-love relationship, but what the heck.
“Under the Hawthorn Tree” is directed by that master of weepy, cloying soapbox antics, Zhang Yimou (“The Road Home,” “Hero,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”). Once upon a time in the 1990s, Zhang’s name had been synonymous with rebellion, at least in terms of working in the (then) hugely restrictive Chinese cinema industry. He’s also renowned for launching the international careers of popular Chinese actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.
Now with over 20 films to his name (including the much-touted opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), Zhang’s intentions seem solidly fixed on entertainment, rather than enlightening or enhancing awareness. He’s especially adroit at drawing cute, willowy heroines who become fixated on some hunky but repressed and sensitive lad. The pair overcome many obstacles (family, destiny, the dictatorial policies of Chairman Mao) to fall in love, but rarely get to consummate their relationship. Eventually, they must part, and live out the rest of their lives fueled by memories. Bring three hankies, you’re sure to need them.
“Under the Hawthorn Tree” embraces the formula, and while it lacks Zhang’s (earlier) hallmark traits such as defiance, slow-burning humor and stinging irony, his masterfully construed visuals enthrall the senses while our tear ducts are fiendishly manipulated. It’s useless to try to resist — the screening room when I saw the film was full of sniffles from the most case-hardened critics in Tokyo.
In the United States, some industry experts have written that Zhang stopped “being Chinese” (at least in his approach to filmmaking) long ago to become a big Hollywood studio director, despite the fact that he has almost always worked exclusively in China. And just as Zhang has made the shift from the bad boy of Chinese cinema to solid tearjerker, so has the Chinese government relaxed regulations on its domestic film industry. Critical depictions of the Cultural Revolution had been an especially touchy issue; now the era has become an infallible dramatic ploy, and in “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” this is deployed to maximum advantage. Adversity comes without relent, and the lovers love all the more because of it.
The film also comes with the additional bonus of getting to see Zhang’s latest find, Zhou Dongyu, as Jing — as graceful and ephemeral as calligraphy. Jing spends the entire film with her hair in braids and wearing the obligatory laborer garb of the period (which only enhances her loveliness). Her intellectual elite parents have lost their jobs and social status, courtesy of Mao’s policies, and the family pin their hopes on Jing as the new breadwinner.
And then Sun (Shawn Dou) steps into her work-centric life and her dismal world blooms with color. The two can only meet briefly and intermittently, plotting time away from the disapproving scrutiny of their families and society at large. Romantic affairs were banned during the revolution, and a young couple found chatting by a rice paddy might get their names on a political blacklist. Jing and Sun experience soaring heights of happiness in each other’s company, only to suffer later under the banner of the Red Flag. The whole thing comes at you like a megahit of cholesterol. One thing’s for sure, Zhang ensures you get your money’s worth, and in double doses.