Stepping off an airplane from Beijing Wednesday night, clad in a baseball cap and black boots, Zhang quipped coolly to The Hollywood Reporter that "Hawthorn" opening at Pusan was "nothing special" and "a matter of timing," expanding to allow that of all the festivals he'd been to "Pusan is superb."
Aloof? Perhaps. After all, Zhang is the same made-man of Chinese cinema whose use of whole batteries of fireworks and synchronized armies of dancers ushered China into the world spotlight at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — 20 years after the Summer Games in Seoul heralded the start of a new era for South Korea.
Visiting Korea's second city for just two days, Zhang is the same man who overcame Beijing's ban of his 1994 film "To Live" to go on to become the only director from the People's Republic to make a real splash in the United States. Zhang's "Hero" grossed $54 million in the United States in 2002 and remains China's most successful film export to date.
Zhang didn't get to work on the Olympics opener, as planned, with the imported Oscar-winning talent of Steven Spielberg. The Hollywood director ditched his advisory role to protest China's bolstering Sudan's attacks in Darfur, leaving all the glory to Zhang.
During his career, Zhang had already earned plenty of his own fame: his "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern" were the first two Chinese films nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar in 1990 and 1992, respectively.
Zhang has shaped the talents of some of China's most famous actors, helping to export their brands, and Chinese cinema, around the world. Early in their screen careers, actor Jiang Wen and actress Gong Li starred in Zhang's 1987 Berlin Golden Bear-winning film "Red Sorghum." Ge You's role in "To Live" won him the best actor award at Cannes, the most visible accolade yet bestowed overseas to a Chinese thespian. The 20-year-old Zhang Ziyi first starred in Zhang's "The Road Home," winner of the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2000.
With none of the marauding armies of "Hero," the martial arts mastery of "House of Flying Daggers," or the courtly splendor and intrigue of "Curse of the Golden Flower," some reviewers remarked that "Under the Hawthorn Tree" reminds them of "The Road Home" and that it appears to be a return to Zhang's roots, a return to stories of plain Chinese people overcoming adversity against the odds.
Based on an online novel, "Hawthorn" follows an educated teenager from her urban home in Hubei Province, in central China, who, in the upheaval wrought by Mao Zedong's policies of the time, is "sent down" to the countryside for "re-education" by peasants.
There, the aspiring schoolteacher meets a male suitor and "Hawthorn" becomes the story of unrequited love in a time in China when everybody's every move was determined and monitored by the Mao's Communist Party.
Zhang said "Hawthorn" was important at this moment in his career because "It's a love story.
It's a Cultural Revolution story. It's a simple story. I think a lot of people in their 20s and 30s will find it interesting that they have the same feelings as their parents and grandparents felt in their time."
Notably, "Hawthorn" tells a tale of a China fast disappearing in 2010, a country that was distinctly agrarian before the economic boom of the past 30 years and before the mass media and exposure to the outside world diluted the Party's control over the minutiae of daily life.
"I've seen a few of Zhang's films before and I liked this one for telling a different story of my parents' and grandparents' time," said 23-year-old animator Sun Guodong, coincidentally also from Hubei, as he emerged earlier this week from a public screening of "Hawthorn" at a Stellar Megamedia Cineplex in Beijing.
By Sept. 28, just before China went on a weeklong holiday to celebrate its National Day, "Hawthorn" had in 12 days grossed roughly 100 million yuan ($15 million), according to producers at Edko Films in Hong Kong.
That Zhang's latest film has done that well, competing with louder domestic and imported commercial titles such as "Inception" for the attention of China's swelling moviegoing public, could be seen as a testament to a growing Chinese appreciation of films outside the new mainstream — even among younger ticket buyers whose movie habit has been formed at newly sprouted multiplexes that are, for purely commercial reasons, the greatest supporters of middle-of-the-road blockbuster fare.
But "Hawthorn" appears to have its appeal, nonetheless, even to China's new, urban and increasingly jaded audience: "Life and romance were much clearer then. Lots of girls today will want their boyfriends to see this movie," said Sun, an unattached, college educated man in a generation whose boys far outnumber girls as a result of China's 30-year-old one-child policy.
Throughout "Hawthorn," as the fate of the lead actress's political prisoner father looms — causing her mother to warn her that with one misstep the Party could "ruin her whole life" — the phrase "soon, maybe the policies will change" is repeated in refrain, especially by her hopeful male suitor.
"Hawthorn" is probably the first major theatrical commercial release in China by a well-known director to address, however obliquely, the dark political fates doled out during the Cultural Revolution, which ran from 1966-1976.
Zhang, having paid his dues and stuck with the Party that first stymied but later bolstered his career, might be the only director allowed by film industry regulators to wade in these murky waters and still expect approval for release. In "Hawthorn," Zhang appears to step ever so carefully, so as not to churn up too much political mud. The idealistic male suitor, who believes change will come quickly, breaks all kinds of rules but ultimately does not see the change he predicted.
For at least one moviegoer born after the most devastating chapter in the country's modern history had come to an end, "Hawthorn" is "about loyalty," said Sun with a knowing smile.
"Hawthorn" stars unknowns — the 18-year-old ballet dancer-turned actress Zhou Dongyu and the 21-year-old Canadian-raised actor Shawn Dou. If the film is about loyalty, Zhang might be asking modern Chinese moviegoers to rediscover the roots of post-revolutionary Chinese film when everybody was a nobody and there were no stars. With "Hawthorn," Zhang might also be asking viewers to look past the consider instead spending their hard-earned yuan on more traditional filmmaking. (China's box office rose more than 80% in the first half of 2010, in large part because of the arrival of "Avatar").
Perhaps with "Hawthorn," Zhang is moving past his own last film — an attempt at remaking the Coen Brothers' 1984 debut noir "Blood Simple" that prompted one reviewer to cite it as proof that Americans were not the only people who could screw up a remake.
With "Hawthorn," Zhang might be asking Chinese ticket buyers to find a calm eddy on the edge of the mainstream, to lift a smooth old rock — Zhang will soon be 60, nearly as old as the P.R.C. itself — and wait for the waters to still, crystallizing into a reflection of what it means to be Chinese.
– The Hollywood Reporter