In that 1999 film, an innocent and illiterate country girl initiates a romance with a teacher at the village school. She cooks and dresses in pretty outfits for him, basically doing all a country girl could do to impress him. In the end, they marry and live happily ever after.
Both films were set decades ago in rural northern China, and both stories involve little more than the two love birds themselves, making the new film reminiscent of the older one in more than one way.
So much so that for many, the film's biggest draw seems to be a chance to assess the potential of a new "Yimou girl."
But this time, we may not be witnessing the birth of a superstar. Zhou Dongyu, who lays the slightly one-track-minded heroine Jingqiu, seems not so keen on trying her luck with more films.
"As for the future, I will go back to school and focus on my studies. I will stay away from the glamour and study hard for next year's National College Entrance Exam. But if I'm offered a really good role I will grab the opportunity," said Zhou.
Her acting in The Love of the Hawthorn Tree feels like an extra-tall bottle of plain purified water: it is coolness in a bottle at first sip, but at the end of it, you realize it's just a bottle of water, and you can't expect it to do what a cup of red wine does.
And the 17-year-old confesses she relied on the more experienced cast and crew members to teach her how to act. Once, a female assistant director tried so hard to make the acting rookie cry she brought only herself to tears.
But her insensitivity seems somehow to hit a soft spot in the director and in the story's hero, conveniently called Lao San, or "third brother," by the villagers.
Unlike Jingqiu, who was sent down to the village for a short training course on farming basics, Lao San was with a geological survey team stationed there for the prospect of discovering valuable mineral resources.
It was easy for the two young urbanites in temporary exile to find common ground, especially when the Lolita-esque girl spotted the handsome boy practicing the accordion like a virtuoso– you don't get to see an accordion player every day in the countryside.
Somehow they fall desperately in love – desperate, because the girl's pokerfaced mother forbids them from seeing each other.
She fears the love affair will cast a shadow on her daughter's newfound career at a school where the mother had been a right-wing social outcast. The girl finds her taboo love at once exciting and challenging, but the boy knows that since he has leukemia, the ban will mean a lonely death. Of course he keeps this from his innocent girlfriend, so at the end of the film, we find a weeping Jingqiu at Lao San's deathbed.
She wants to bring him back from a coma, but only then realizes she'd never bothered to ask his real name. So instead, she just keeps introducing herself, roaring and then howling "I'm Jingqiu!" into the dying boy's ear. Somehow she knows he hears her, and that is the end.
From start to finish, the film is a departure from Zhang Yimou's last feature, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, which was branded as a Chinese comic remake of the Coen Brothers' classic Blood Simple. But the return to tragedy seems too predictable and natural, as only two of Zhang's 17 films could be labeled comedies.
The director says he has no preference between comedies and tragedies, but feels that a sad ending gives people more to think about.
"We always want to take away from a film something we can cherish forever, something deeply meaningful. The love in this film is very beautiful for its simplicity, and it will be remembered for a long time because of its devastating ending," said Zhang.
The actual effect is 110 minutes of grayish, misty pictures, so visually depressing that you sometimes forget you're watching a Zhang Yimou film.
One reason to watch may be the star-studded supporting cast, many of them semi-retired industry legends and icons. Maybe The Love of the Hawthorn Tree is just an appetizer leading up to Zhang's next film, soon to be in production, about the Japanese army's invasion and slaughter in China's city of Nanjing in 1937.
He certainly will have a lot more ingredients to cook with for that film, a reason for us to be hungry.
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