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(PIFF) Zhang Yimou's love story touches heart despite conventional plot
By Kim Hyun
BUSAN, Oct. 7 (Yonhap) -- Zhang Yimou's "Under the Hawthorn Tree," the opener of this year's Pusan International Film Festival, tells a story of a young couple who fall in love at first sight in the repressive 1970s in China.

   The boy is wealthy but dying of a terminal disease. The girl comes from a rightist family that is poor and persecuted during China's Cultural Revolution. This may sound like a typical movie about romance torn apart by death, but Zhang's depiction moved many viewers to tears when it premiered internationally in Busan on Thursday. It was released in China in mid-September.

   "The important thing is not the fact that he's dying. The important thing is how it is portrayed," Zhang told reporters after the film's press screening.

   Jing Qiu (Zhou Dongyu) is sent to work in the countryside, like millions of Chinese students of that era who were told to evoke their proletariat spirit under the Cultural Revolution. There she meets and falls in love with Lao Shan (Shawn Dou), who is from a high-class family. Their forbidden love disrupts Jing's initial hope that she will prove loyal to the Communist Party and become a teacher.

   The young actors, all in plain shirts and pants, depict an age of innocence in rural China, where eggs were rare nutritious food and washing someone else's feet was an expression of love, an element that viewers in Korea and other Asian countries would be able to relate to.

   "Back in the days of revolution in China, we had such a period of poverty," Zhang said.

   "Eggs were also rare, so they were difficult to have," he said, referring to a scene in which a mother gives boiled eggs to her daughter after she gets an abortion.

   Zhang rejected criticism that the plot may be too conventional for modern-day viewers, saying Ai Mi's original novel was too powerful to be altered.

   "The male character is dying of leukemia, and it is the subject that has been no doubt a lot used in past films," Zhang said. "But that's what is said in the novel, and making the film based on it, I didn't want to change much."

   This film marked Zhang's return to his early auteurism after many years of big-budget productions like "Lovers," "House of Flying Daggers" and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

   "A lot of commercial films I've made in China, so I get a lot of questions about why I decided to make such a small-scale film," he said. "But I also (have) been through the Cultural Revolution myself. And I also thought this novel is a great story."