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Simple love story in chaotic times

ZHANG Yimou's latest film "Under the Hawthorn Tree" opens today and has been praised as a return to his earlier, more thoughtful art-house style. Xu Wei reports.

Although famed director Zhang Yimou's commercial films have taken the box office by storm, they have not won the critical acclaim of his much earlier art-house films such as "Red Sorghum" (1987) and "To Live" (1994).

Fans, too, have tired of blockbuster costume dramas like "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and "Hero" (2002).

In his latest film "Under the Hawthorn Tree" to be released nationwide today, Zhang returns to the more thoughtful, poetic film making that first made him famous. There are no big names and the main characters are not played by professional actors.

The love story set during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) is the slow-moving and straightforward tale of a city girl with a "bad class background" who is sent to the countryside for reeducation; there she falls in love with a young man from an important, politically approved rural family. They keep their love secret.

There's no bold color or splash from the director of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the film resonated with many in the audience who viewed its media screening last week. There were quite a few tears and not a few observations that love back in those days seemed purer and less materialistic than romance nowadays.

Media critic and noted TV anchor Cao Kefan calls the film Zhang's best work since "To Live."

"The film's unsophisticated and poetic storytelling in the dialogue, the lyrics, and the scenes even remind me of the late film artist Fei Mu's 1948 classic 'Spring in a Small Town,' which also portrays love in a special era," Cao said right after watching the film.

"Compared with Zhang's commercial blockbusters featuring lavish scenes and dazzling stunts, I would say this is unvarnished, honest, and even surprising production of the film maker," he said.

A media professional in the screening audience commented: "I'm glad that after many years of commercial attempts, Zhang hasn't lost his talent in shooting heartwarming, thought-provoking, small-budget films."

The film is adapted from a popular 2007 Internet novel "Under the Hawthorn Tree." Most scenes were filmed in a tranquil village with poetic settings in Hubei Province, the scenery preferred in the past by the cinematrographer-turned-director.

As in his earlier art-house films, Zhang uses actors without professional training, encouraging them to act naturally.

Zhou Dongyu, who plays the city girl Jing Qiu was still a high school student when she was cast for the part, and Dou Xiao, who plays the local boy Lao San, was a Beijing Film Academy student with no acting experience.

Veteran actress Xi Meijuan plays Jing's tough but loving mother who fears her daughter's love may jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching job.

"Without a lot of dialogue or complicated plot, the film tries to say that love is eternal, beyond time and space," actress Xi says. "The young actors did a great job of portraying characters in that period so vividly.

Blockbuster month

The film will be part of a blockbuster-filled month, competing with Christopher Nolan's "Inception," Jon Turteltaub's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," John Woo's "Reign of Assassins" and Tsui Hark's "Detective Dee."

But film industry experts are optimistic about the film's box office performance because of Zhang's fame and expertise, estimating that "Hawthorn Tree" will take in more than 200 million yuan (US$29 million) nationwide.

Zhang has successfully moved from art cinema to blockbuster and back to art cinema.

The huge box office success of "Hero" (2002), Zhang's commercial debut, encouraged many film makers of his generation to make a distinctive shift away from their former styles and try big-money films.

However, not many of them have excelled. Chen Kaige, director of the acclaimed "Farewell My Concubine" (1993) and "The Yellow Earth" (1984) lost many fans of his early works with his commercial offering "The Promise" (2005).

Director Zhang's 2009 production "A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle - A Simple Noodle Story" was criticized for being a turgid fumbles and shtick.

Kevin Fan, a 30-something IT worker, says his life outlook was influenced by Zhang's and Chen's early art-house productions and expressed disappointment that great directors turned to flashy commercial works.

"Many distinguished directors are losing their way in pursuit of box office and that's not a good sign for a diversified Chinese cinema," he sighs.

Still, there are successful cases of directors changing from small-budget to big-budget films. Feng Xiaogang was enormously successful with his funny "Cell Phone" (2003) and "If You Are the One" (2008), but he has turned out commercially successful serious films such as "Aftershock" this year and earlier films about war and revenge.

Feng says that to compete with Hollywood, Chinese directors "need to focus on the taste of domestic audiences and keep telling their own stories."

The so-called sixth-generation art film directors, such as Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke, are also expected to release commercial works in the near future.

Wang's upcoming suspense drama "Chongqing Blues" is about a man who long ago abandoned his wife and son but returns home to find out why his son was gunned down by police.

After this year's "I Wish I Knew," director Jia has been working on a US$15 million martial arts film "In the Qing Dynasty," about the destinies of a group of ordinary people in turbulent times.

Although more and more art-house film directors are venturing into mainstream commercial film making, not all have the knack.

"I doubt if they can really grasp the rhythm and storytelling skills of commercial cinema," says Professor Gu Xiaoming, a scholar and film critic from Fudan University. "Whether art or commercial film, no one will reject a film with high artistry and a good story."


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