Zhang Yimou: True love is eternal

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Under the Hawthorn Tree, the poignant tale of doomed young romance, was a labor of love for its director.

Zhang Yimou and his new leading lady, 18-year-old Zhou Dongyu.
Zhang Yimou and his new leading lady, 18-year-old Zhou Dongyu.

Those who love the distinctive style of Zhang Yimou's movies may find his new film, a 1970s romance entitled Under the Hawthorn Tree, a surprise. Zhang gives up his signature bold colors, casts two newcomers to the big screen in the lead roles and abandons a dramatic plot. It seems an uncharacteristic Zhang Yimou movie, except for the leading actress' look, which reminds many of Zhang Ziyi. But it is a very personal work. Set against the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the film depicts how two youngsters try hard to protect their love, despite the huge gap in their social status. In an interview with China Daily, Zhang says those 10 years were "all misery" for him. It happened when he was 16 and ended when he was 26, and had a profound influence on his personality. Rather than tearing open the scar, Zhang chose to present a positive part of that decade - people who never relinquished their love despite the difficulties. The film is too light to create a comprehensive picture of the era, but the simple love story reminds viewers why purity, trust and love are eternal. It premieres on Sept 16.

What exactly in the story inspired you to make the movie?

I read the script by chance. When reading the last scene in which Jingqiu (the heroine) cries beside the bed of her dying lover, I was hit by a kind of primitive emotion.

She is losing him, but she can do nothing but cry and say she is there. It made me sad.

That feeling was very precious to me. I wanted to keep it and convey it to viewers, although most people thought I should give up the story because it was so light.

After A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, everyone is eager to help me get back onto the so-called correct way. I appreciate their good will, but I still want to make something that really moves me.

The story is about first love. Did you add any details from your own life?

My own love story is nothing special. I can only say Under the Hawthorn Tree finds an echo in me.

One of the scriptwriters was a zhiqing (young people sent to the countryside during the "cultural revolution" to work as peasants), so was I. We added many details from our personal memories to the movie.

Let me tell you a story from that time. Very funny. A boy and a girl were in love but never even dared to hold hands. One day, the boy could no longer contain himself and he kissed the girl on her cheek. The girl burst into tears, ran home and told her mother, "I'm pregnant!" In that era, many people had the same experience.

At your age, do you still believe in true love?

Of course, everyone will agree that true love is eternal.

The story is set against the "cultural revolution", how do you see that part of history?

It was a tragedy, for the nation and for myself.

I was sent to the countryside for three years, and then spent seven years in a factory, just because of my family background.

I was like Jingqiu, possibly in a worse situation.

The shadow of being inferior, sensitive and scared haunted me. Even when I passed the exam for the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, I still worried the school would refuse me because of my family background.

That decade means all misery to me, and there were tens of millions who had the same experience as me.

But the most outstanding thing about Chinese people is that we are strong and optimistic enough to transform misery into something very touching in artistic works.

So I told myself, do not show the injuries, the wound is, and will be, in our hearts, but show people the beauty of mankind behind that.

The "cultural revolution" is a sensitive subject. Did the censors ask you to change anything in the movie?

It went very smoothly. They were touched, too, and saw it as a love story.

I have to say there are limitations to filmmaking in China. It depends on how you deal with it. We all work in societies with limitations.

The long history of China and the country's tribulations are a rich resource for good stories. I hope China becomes more and more open, and the censorship more and more tolerant, but it needs time.

You seem to have the magic to turn new actors into superstars, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi for example. This time you cast two first timers to the big screen again. How do you decide on your actors?

My eyes work as a camera.

I have this natural gift - when I see an actor I know if he or she will win the camera's favor.

Generally speaking, movies magnify the actor's face for the viewers to see. I am confident I can show a face in a unique way. That's just something I have.

You used to act in movies, too, but I guess nobody can afford to cast you again.

I don't like acting, and I am definitely not a good actor. I get totally lost in acting. Every time I take a role I regret it.

When I was acting in Old Well, I only completed my role because of my professional work ethic. I did not brush my teeth or take a shower for three months to play the character - I was much more hardworking than today's actors. But I felt no enjoyment at all.

It was a big surprise I won an award for the role (Best Actor at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1987). But I really do not want to do it again.

It was said that Ang Lee invited you to act in one of his movies.

Lee is a friend and a master in training actors.

He did invite me. I told him I was not a good actor. He said, don't worry, leave it to me, but I refused anyway.

Which movie? I can't tell you.

Often, I wish I could be invisible and follow some great directors to see how they work. I believe I can learn a lot from them.

You have been in the industry for more than 30 years, any moments when you felt bored? What excites you now?

I have few hobbies. I don't play golf or mahjong, nor do I smoke or drink. I have no interest in parties.

The only thing I love is making movies, not the pre- or post-production, but the making of a movie. It is dream building.

I won't stop making movies, because it was something I could never imagine in my childhood and youth. Time changes and fate bestowed me this job, so I'm always thankful.

Many of my old friends worked as factory workers until they retired. They are also talented, they just did not get the chance.

Maybe I am old-fashioned, some people cherish their life by traveling, playing golf or just having fun, but for me working cherishes life.

Only after you have the experience of begging for food do you know how precious and delicious it is.

I am still dreaming of making a perfect movie. To Live was a good one, but I could do it better given more space.

Now a good script would excite me, a script that would not take me two years to revise, but a good one that is all ready to go.

China's box office has soared in recent years, but when Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar and Inception hit the screens, local productions still seem to find it hard to compete. What do you think of the state of Chinese cinema?

There is a gap between Chinese movies and the best of the world. But I always say movies are of different genres.

In terms of commercial movies, Hollywood still leads the world. Just like the NBA, even if the world's other basketball players make a united team, they may still lose.

Speaking of the movie industry and the variety of film genres, we are also lagging behind. That's why we still need protection for local movies.

But in art house cinema, there is no obvious winner in the world.

Actually I seldom think about things other than how to make a good movie. If everyone does his or her job, maybe we will narrow the gap.

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