The interesting thing about my adventures in in-flight entertainment, is that I never quite know what I’ll stumble onto. Not all of my in-flight picks are good ones, to be sure. But sometimes, I find a gem that I probably would’ve never watched if I hadn’t been a captive audience on a flight.
Today, I randomly decided that I was in the mood for a bit of Chinese nostalgia, and picked Under The Hawthorn Tree without knowing much about it at all. Essentially, all I knew about this movie, was that it was set in the past, that it involved a girl who went to the countryside and fell in love with a boy, and that it was directed by famed director Zhang Yimou.
Little did I know that by movie’s end, I would be willingly serving up my heart on a plate all over again – just mere days after serving it up to Japanese movie “My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday.”
Well done, In-flight Me. Well done.
To be honest, this is not the kind of movie I usually gravitate towards.
For one thing, it’s set in the Cultural Revolution and I have little interest in politics and therefore, political contexts as well. For another, the entire look and feel of the movie is muted. The color palette is very subdued, the scenes generally fall on the quieter side of things, the lighting is sometimes so dark in night scenes that I felt like I could barely see what was going on on my screen, and the running time is rather long, to boot.
BUT. All of these things didn’t matter, because these were essentially all used to masterfully bring this true-account story to life.
Despite the political setting, this movie never felt political in nature. Instead, the political setting was simply the context and reality of our characters. This world felt real, detailed, and lived-in. With the use of the muted color palette and darker lighting, I felt like I truly got a sense of what it was like for our characters, living in that world. I felt fully on board for their story – and what an emotional ride that turned out to be.
STUFF I ENJOYED
1. Shawn Dou as Sun Jian Xin (Lao San)
Not gonna lie; in a narrative world where everything looked dreary most of the time, Shawn Dou’s brilliant smile was the thing that kept lighting up my screen. It absolutely didn’t hurt that Shawn Dou is also very handsome, and reminds me quite a bit of an older, more rugged Park Bo Gum (for whom I’ve grown a very large soft spot). He’s also a very solid actor, and he really brought Sun to life, for me. Extra kudos to Shawn Dou, since this was his debut.
Additionally, I loved Sun as a character. He was always so cheerful, so positive and so undyingly loyal. Even when he was separated from Jing Qiu (Zhou Dongyu) by distance and misunderstanding, he continued to be as cheerful, as positive, and as loyal as ever.
My favorite Sun scene – ok, one of my favorite Sun scenes – is when he’s on a boat leaving the area where Jing Qiu is, and she finally shows herself by calling out to Chang Lin who’s with him. Even though she’d been avoiding him all this time, Sun takes one look at Jing Qiu, and, without even the slightest flicker of hesitation, jumps into the water so that he can go to her, if only for a brief moment.
When he does reach her, he has only smiles for her. He admits with a bashful but bright smile that he’s been watching her play volleyball, then he places a dripping wad of money in her hand, telling her to buy her volleyball uniform so that she doesn’t ruin the image of the team. She simply smiles sweetly in response, and he then turns right around to get himself back onto the boat, still beaming as he goes.
He doesn’t need any explanation or apology from her; her smile is enough for him. Melt.
Some people might protest that Sun as a character is a little too perfect. After all, he never gets angry, and only ever continues to love and care for Jing Qiu. Personally, though, just remembering that this is a true story based on the lives of real people, made this a non-issue for me. Coz, Sun is real. <3
2. Zhou Dongyu as Jing Qiu
I also very much enjoyed Zhou Dongyu as Jing Qiu. Jing Qiu often doesn’t say much, but I felt like I could follow her emotional journey quite easily, just based on her body language and facial expressions.
Her shyness, her desire to do right by her family, her attraction to Sun, her struggle to balance those conflicting forces, her stubborn streak; all of that felt visible and accessible to me. Again, extra kudos, since this was also Zhou Dongyu’s debut.
3. The portrayal of love [MINOR SPOILERS]
Beyond the cute couple moments that we get to witness between Sun and Jing Qiu, the thing that struck me the most about their love story, is how little our lovers had, and how their love blossomed and endured, in spite of their circumstances.
In my eyes, Sun deserves more of the credit, for making this relationship work. When Jing Qiu was reticent, he was the one who consistently reached out to her with his warmth and kindness. When she withdrew from him, thinking that he had a betrothed in the city, he was the one who continued to wait for her, and love her in practical ways. He was always looking for ways to make her life better, and he wasn’t afraid to push himself to work harder, in order to gain time to see her – even if seeing her meant gazing at her from afar, without her knowledge.
All this, when our couple is separated by distance, political sensitivities and familial objections because of said political sensitivities. And through all of it, they didn’t have the luxuries of our modern world – no cell phones, email or social media – for them to keep in touch. Long stretches of time would lapse between their short-lived, stolen meetings.
Yet, their love for each other endured and ran deep. This love, that grew and persevered in the face of such obstacles, with so very little in terms of resources, really moved me. It feels so pure and strong.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [MAJOR SPOILERS]
As I got into the final stretch of the movie, my heart filled with foreboding and dread for what might happen to Sun. He’d disappeared after carefully crafted assurances that he wasn’t sick at all, and was only in the hospital for a routine check-up.
In the end, my heart broke at the confirmation of my worst fears; that Sun really did have leukemia, and was dying. The gigantic contrast between the happy, strong and vibrant Sun that I’d become accustomed to, and the splotchy, gaunt, shadow of himself that he’d become on the hospital bed, was supremely startling and so, so heartbreaking to see.
While we’re not told why Sun kept his illness a secret from everyone, I feel that it’s not quite out of noble idiocy, but more out of consideration for those he loved. My sense is that he didn’t want to hurt them with the truth, that he was ill and dying.
The silver lining in all of this, for me, is that Jing Qiu got to see him one last time, and talk to him one last time, and, from the tear that escaped his eye even in his catatonic state, we know that he heard her, even though he could not respond.
When the camera pans over to the ceiling, and we see that Sun had had his photo with Jing Qiu pasted there to be in his direct line of sight as he lay on his hospital bed, my heart literally hurt, and I couldn’t stop the tears from springing to my eyes. Even though he’d removed himself from everyone including Jing Qiu, in order to spare them pain, he had thought of her, and gazed upon her face, and loved her, from where he was.
After Sun’s death (sob), his family honors his request for his ashes to be buried under the hawthorn tree, which had been such a recurring motif in his relationship with Jing Qiu, and every year, Jing Qiu continues to visit the site to honor him.
Just before the final credits roll, we get a silent message onscreen, essentially telling us what Sun couldn’t tell Jing Qiu in words himself:
I cannot wait for you for one year and one month,
I cannot wait for you until you are 25,
but I will wait for you my whole life.
Augh. Such heartrending devotion. He did literally love her, and wait for her, with all of his being, until he breathed his last breath.
Heart. Break. Flail.
Through all of this, the fact that this is a true story just made my heart ache even more. This wasn’t some love story concocted in a writer’s imagination; these were – are – real people, and this is real love, and continues to be real love. As I type this, I estimate that Jing Qiu is probably about 70 years old now, still visiting the love of her life under the hawthorn tree.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Sweet, heartrending, and completely moving.
FINAL GRADE: A