Friday, October 12, 2012
Under the Hawthorn Tree
Set during the end of China's Cultural Revolution in a small village in Yichang City, Hubei Province, China, this film is about a pure love that develops between a beautiful high school student, Zhang Jingqiu and a handsome young prospector named Lao San. Jingqiu is one of the "educated youth" sent to be "re-educated" through work in the countryside under a directive from Chairman Mao Zedong.
My Paper said that "Dou and Zhou bring a touching believability to this tale of young love" and rated this film 3.5 stars. Pusan International Film Festival website stated that "He renders it as something now tainted under the weight of age and ever-changing worlds. In an unbelievably delicate observance... Zhang expresses his view of innocence in a soft, almost feminine, approach. Also ... he successfully draws enticing portrayals of innocence from Zhou Dongyu and Dou Xiao. ... Zhang Yimou appears to reclaim his own innocence as a youthful creator. " Kaori Shoji of The Japan Times gave the film 4 out of 5 stars, and describes it as a "tearjerker aims for the heart".
History is tricky stuff, particularly in China. Both of these novels are set in a passage of 20th-century history that has been the object of both state manipulation and censorship. Although they stand alone as works of fiction, their historical settings also offer clues to China's contemporary concerns.
The action of The Flowers of War (by Geling Yan, trabslated by Nicky Harman, Harvill Secker, £10) takes place during the dreadful months of the Nanjing massacre of 1937-38; Under the Hawthorn Tree opens in 1974, in the dying days of the cultural revolution. The authors are well established in mainland China, though both are resident in the US: Shanghai-born Geling Yan left her homeland after the suppression of the Tiananmen student movement in 1989, while details about Ai Mi – a pen name – are notably scarce. Her novel first appeared in 2007 on a website popular with émigré Chinese students. The website was blocked in China but the novel was sent to a Chinese publisher and became a bestseller in print. Both books have inspired feature films directed by film-maker Zhang Yimou, the choreographer of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony.
The historical events of the cultural revolution remain sensitive for the censors despite the party's posthumous verdict on Mao Zedong, which ruled it a decade of catastrophe for which he was responsible. After his death in 1976, with censorship relaxed, it became the inspiration for an outpouring of literary emotion; at the time, this "scar literature" seemed refreshingly therapeutic, but the public eventually tired, China changed, and authors moved on.
Since then, the cultural revolution has been reinvented as kitsch for the younger generations, whom censorship keeps ignorant of the events themselves. It has become a favourite theme for restaurant décor; it is bathed in musical sentimentality at weekends as pensioners gather to sing songs of the time. The darker memories below the surface are contained by censorship and the passage of time. We do not know into which category – memory or nostalgia - Ai Mi fits, though her agent in Beijing, who has never met her, speculates that she had direct experience. Chinese-language sources, on the other hand, suggest that her book is based on its heroine's 1977 memoir, rejected for publication at the time because the characters showed insufficient "fighting spirit". In Under the Hawthorn Tree, the period is drawn with convincing detail, evoked to illuminate how political repression and strict social mores affect two characters engaged in one of China's favourite literary themes – the melodramatically doomed love story.
And, if the link is still working, here is the entire film in YouTube.