Wednesday 8 November 2017

On SBS - Barrie Pattison discovers a rare screening on Zhang Yimou's UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE (China, 2010)

English-language poster
As a source of quality foreign-speak movies, SBS has pretty much dried up so it was agreeable to find them airing the unfamiliar Zhang Yimou Shan zha shu zhi lian/Under the Hawthorn Tree (China, 2010) even at noon. It may be a repeat. 

We get hard times under the Maoists, subject of Yimou's big hit Hong gao liang/Red Sorghum (China, 1987) and an inexperienced school teacher not unlike the Minzhi Wei character in his best film, the 1999 Yi ge dou bu neng shao/Not One Less. Hopes rise in the early stages.

Like everything in this movie it takes a while to reveal that there are going to be no surprises in its long 114 minutes.

It kicks off with a bus load of city pupils sent off to the countryside under instruction to “work hard and receive re-education from the peasants.” We’ve been here before.

A local greeter draws their attention to the Hawthorn Tree watered with the blood of revolutionary fighters, which is supposed to have produced red flowers in place of the usual white. Teenage Dongyu Zhou is taking notes for her piece of revolutionary journalism. She draws the attention of Shawn Dou the third brother of the so nice family she’s billeted with. He's working on the geological site with the pyramid tent down the road.

Our heroine is under a shadow with her capitalist dad in a Cultural Revolution jail and her teacher mother Meijuan Xi (one of the mothers in Joy Luck Club) unfairly harassed. (“Your mum was not the only Capitalist Roader”) They earn less than the peasants and struggle to get by making envelopes on the side for a pittance. Zhou can’t even effort a uniform for the Netball team - she ends up as basketball girl number five (Hmm!)

Chinese Poster
Despite these disadvantages she impresses the school sufficiently to be put on probation as a teacher. We only get one glimpse of her in the class room which is kind of defeating.

Going with a boy (at least till she’s twenty-five) would be a blot on the record which will accompany her for life. Never the less Dou comes on for her, sending gifts via her young siblings and leading her over the stepping stones in the river by both holding a twig as touching would be a no-no. He keeps on showing up, giving her a pair of gumboots to protect her feet while treading the cement and lime used in her worthy volunteer work on repairing the basketball court. They chastely go river swimming together.

After rushing her to the military hospital for her foot injuries riding his push bike while she hides her face, they come face to face with mum. Confronting her in the family home he is made to back off for a couple of years (even in a picture like this, that is not going to fly) promising mum.

However, news reaches Zhou that he's in hospital where she can only sit outside the gate at night. “We must all follow revolutionary orders.” Dou makes a deal for the use of a nurse’s room and, after he buys his sweetie an enamel dish with Hawthorn berries on it, we get one of the longest will they or won’t they scenes on record.

As if things hadn’t been dragged out enough there is some more agony over his supposed fiancĂ©e and friend Ruijia Jiang’s unwanted pregnancy with her proving to be only marginally better informed than our heroine though she’s the primary source of sex education here.

There follows a tearful finale in complete contrast to the smiling photo they took secretly.

Epilogue shows the Hawthorn tree in (white) bloom with narration explaining it was swallowed by the Three Gorges Dam though Zho still visits every year believing it flowers under the water. The cast try hard in their single note characters. The young leads did kick off stellar careers with this one. 

OK Guys. We get it. Things were rough during the Cultural Revolution. Some more biting analysis might draw some valuable insights from that situation. A weepy account of so nice teenagers won’t. Nuannxing Zhang's 1986 Qing chun ji/Sacrificed Youth covered this ground much more poignantly and with more insight. What happened to her?

Under the Hawthorn Tree appears not to have found a wide audience. The TV copy is in green looking scope.

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