With his many recent works that are nothing short of being opulent, and an Olympic project that was sheer spectacle, director Zhang Yimou still shows he has what it takes to take it down some notches in telling a simple, but no less emotional, tale of first love and romance, set during the Cultural Revolution in 60s and 70s China. It is this historical setting that perhaps piqued interest in bringing the Internet novel by Ai Mi onto the big screen, which lifts it beyond a typical romantic weepy.
Starring newcomer Zhou Dongyu - mind you Zhang Yimou has this knack of bringing new faces to the scene - and Shawn Dou as the star crossed lovers Jing and Sun respectively, the story tackles both the saccharine sweet moments that the duo have to steal away from society's prying eyes, and that of objections that come from Jing's mother. It's a time when Chairman Mao is very much revered, and the story takes aim at how his policies impacted the ordinary man on the street, giving rise to complications on survival matters, especially if you're deemed an intellect and are sent to be re-educated as with Jing's father, held as a political prisoner, and her teacher mom into becoming a school cleaner, earning extra through the folding 1000 envelopes for a single cent.
Constantly cautioned on her family's lack of status and being under the scrutiny of the powers that be, hopes are pinned on Jing as the next generation to lift their family's plight, since there are also two other younger siblings to take care of, rather than to spend time in romantic affairs of the heart with Sun. But undeterred, both parties forge on despite the rich and poor, have and have not divide, with Sun's more privileged background meant a lot more giving on materials on his end to ensure that his loved one makes it through what life has dished out to her under the current circumstances.
The story also doesn't shy away from the airing of grouses, which is probably quite unheard of and bordering on treason too, at least for its time when such statements get made in hushed tones. While one can be quite gung ho about it as proclaiming one's love for another, it's another ball game altogether when taking pot shots at an establishment. The secrecy of the lovers relationship provide ample moments for the usual tried and tested formula of stolen glances, growing into more daring meets involving some frolicking into a river, and moments of temptation when they're all but alone in a rented room.
Having the lovers meet when Jing was sent to the countryside as part of curricular and Sun being attached to a geological project meant the film can bask in a lot of lush landscapes brought out by beautiful cinematography. The art direction was top notch to make this period piece believable, and some of the best moments in the film occur when little things get detailed and time spent to showcase it, such as the amount of propaganda posters pasted on walls, as well as that of a rousing morale boosting song performed by the students with aplomb, even if some of them do not quite actually harbour the same sentiments as what's being sung out loud.
The fresh faced leads also breathed some life into what would be a typical narrative of a romantic weepy. Zhou Dongyu is excellent as the innocent and wide-eyed girl who takes on a very firm stance against her mother's wishes, putting a risk in jeopardizing her family's fate, and that of her own future, should she be found out. Shawn Dou plays his hunky character of the almost perfect man with that steely determination of wanting the best for his loved one, yet being presented with a dilemma of a request made by an elder, which I'm sure many guys out there would share in similar emotions if put in the same boat. At some angles he reminded me of a certain television actor in Singapore as well, but blessed with better acting ability.
In a way the story's quite sprawling, and not everything from the novel can be filmed without sacrificing pace, and this accounted for the very frequent use of intertitles to split the scenes into logical chapters. I would rank this as one of Zhang Yimou's more accessible films, and certainly one that shows he's more than capable to tackle a rather straightforward tale no lacking in powerful emotions and melodrama. Recommended!