by Leng Mo
Renowned director Zhang Yimou's latest work Under the Hawthorn Tree opens nationally on Thursday with the famous filmmaker meeting the press Sunday evening in Beijing, talking about his choice of young actors, film festivals and the ideals of love.
Set during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Under the Hawthorn Tree was adapted from Ai Mi's 2007 online novel Hawthorn Tree Forever, which is based on a true story about a young city girl with a condemned political background, Jing (Zhou Dongyu),who falls in love with a young man from a high-profile family, Sun (Dou Xiao), when she goes to the countryside to be re-educated.
"I was given a script adapted from Hawthorn Tree Forever in the summer of 2008 while we were preparing for the Olympic Games. I was told it was a must read for me, since it is about young people getting re-educated in the countryside in the 1970s of which I had the same experience," Zhang explained. "I was touched by the story for its pure and simple love of that time, a love without too much logical thinking, but an instinct," he told the Global Times.
After his last work A Simple Noodle Story was panned by critics, despite doing well at the box office, Zhang said that his peers urged him to produce a more art house work with intriguing effects, but he chose Hawthorn Tree for its simplicity.
"Fundamentally the film is about an eternal theme: life and love, but this time with no color exaggeration or fancy mise-en-scene. I decided to set the film as smoothly narrated, simple and minimal, let the story flow like water," the director said.
Casting novice actress 17-year-old high school girl Zhou Dongyu and university acting major Dou Xiao as his leads, Zhang commented that it was important to stay true to the original work.
"Zhou and Dou are both innocent young people with pureness like the youth of the 1970s. I felt they were the right ones immediately when I met them," he said.
His production company, New Pictures, has also signed the pair to the studio, a rare move for the director.
"Zhou and Dou are key to the film without a doubt," Zhang added, explaining that working on a closed set helped the new actors get in touch with their roles and their emotions.
"I asked them to feel rather than to act, it turned out to be satisfying," he said. "I edited after shooting ended everyday…The acting of the pair got better and better, especially in scenes between the two. I therefore adjusted the script and focused more on the dating and interaction between them, after all, it is a story about them."
Shot in Yichang, Hubei Province, the location of the original work and true story, Zhang agreed with supporting actor Li Xuejian, who plays Jing's countryside "father," that Under the Hawthorn Tree is a Chinese Romeo and Juliet love story.
"The film is a story of pure love, any true love is pure and eternal," Zhang said. "Pure love happened before, it's happening now and it will continue. It can be understood by people of any age group, nationalities and background."
The work is set to open Pushan International Film Festival, with Zhang adding that he was invited to screen it in Venice last week, but opted for a Chinese premiere before taking the work abroad.
"The distributors believed the domestic market was essential and decided to premiere at home," Zhang said. He explained that director of the Venice film festival and his good friend, Marco Müller, thoroughly enjoyed the work but also understood the need for it to begin locally.
Zhang also has high hopes for the box office, but said he is more concerned about creating art. "Box office records get broken all the time. In China we have 5,000 screens nationwide, it will soon be 10,000 and then 15,000…Records will continue to be broken, but no matter how many screens we have, good films are always the most needed. We Chinese have the long tradition to appreciate art, we should all work for it," he said.
Currently in pre-production for his next film Jinling Shisan Chai (The 13 Women of Nanjing), another adaptation from a well-known novel about how people from different social classes struggled during the Nanjing Massacre in the 1930s, Zhang revealed that he is in discussion with his Hollywood counterparts for a possible A-listed Hollywood actor to come on board.