Forbidden fruit

Young love in China blooms ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree.’

Under the Hawthorn Tree 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Under the Hawthorn Tree 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Under the Hawthorn Tree Directed by Yimou Zhang.Written by Lichuan Yin, Xiaobai Gu, and Mei Ah, based on a novel by Ai Mi.Hebrew title: Sheh Tikra’ee b’Shimcha.114 minutes. In Chinese, with Hebrew and English titles.
Yimou Zhang’s film Under the Hawthorn Tree is both a graceful romance that has echoes of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a political allegory about China during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s career has been marked by a similar dichotomy. He has made lavish period dramas, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which were action-filled spectacles celebrating Chinese history and also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He has worked within the communist system and even celebrated it. The success of these rousing films overseas has been so great that it is probably why, when Zhang chooses to make a quieter film that is sharply critical of Maoism, such as the 1994 movie To Live or the 1991 Raise the Red Lantern (which was a thinly veiled allegory for the oppressive policies of the government), he is permitted to do so and even to travel abroad with it.
In Under the Hawthorn Tree, which is based on the best-selling novel by Ai Mi, he walks a fine line. The film combines elements of a conventional romance – the book is a kind of Chinese Love Story – with a critique of and sorrow about abuses during the Cultural Revolution. Since the time frame of the film is all in the past, during the 1960s and early 1970s, the current government may not consider this work subversive.
But Zhang skillfully tells an emotionally compelling love story that focuses on the deep injustices of the Cultural Revolution era. It’s probably his most emotionally resonant film since To Live.
On the surface, it’s simply a starcrossed love story. Jing (Dongyu Zhou) is a city girl sent to a friendly village near her home to live with a farming family and learn about life there. Although it’s an undemanding assignment, she is under tremendous pressure to receive a favorable recommendation from her supervisors so that she can become an assistant teacher and help her mother. Her family has been struggling since her father was imprisoned as a Rightist, and her mother, a teacher, also cleans the school. At home, Jing, her mother and her younger siblings work ceaselessly to manufacture envelopes, which they sell for a pittance. This urban grind is sharply contrasted with the lush landscapes of the countryside and the plenty on the table of the farmers she stays with.
She busies herself with writing an article about the famous Hawthorn tree in the village, the flowers of which reportedly turned red from blood of those killed by Japanese occupiers during World War II. But her diligence is mocked, gently, by Sun (Shawn Dou), the young uncle of the family who works on the geological survey and lives nearby. Also from an urban background shadowed by political tragedy, he is extraordinarily charming and attentive to Jing. Soon, the two are deeply in love, but her mother strictly forbids her from having anything to do with boys. In addition, her every move is closely supervised by school authorities and gossiping neighbors. Jing and Sun must hide and repress their love for each other, hoping against hope that someday they will be allowed to be together.
This may sound quite banal, and at moments it is. But most of the time, the exceptional beauty and charm of the two leads – especially Shawn Dou, who has the poise and ease with the camera of a young George Clooney – elevate the film into something more. There are several scenes, notably one by a river, featuring the two of them together, their faces close, that reminded me of George Stevens’s classic A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is a movie that will make you long for the Hollywood era when moviemakers could never show a sex scene but where the films often sizzled with sensuality and longing. The Hawthorn tree in the village is a symbol for their passion, and the symbolism gets a bit obvious as the action progresses. But Zhang Yimou, a masterful showman and sly political commentator, and with his glorious young stars, creates a beautiful and passionate film.