BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou unveiled his new romance to foreign audiences at Asia's leading film festival on Wednesday, calling it a simple love story that sheds the bright colors and epic scale of his recent productions.
Set against China's decade-long ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution, "Under the Hawthorn Tree" follows the relationship between a high school student sent to work in the countryside and a young geologist.
Zhang hones in on the prudishness and sexual ignorance that characterized courtships at a time when China was caught up in revolutionary fever and closed to Western influences.
Hand-holding is taboo and hugs are tentative. The female character rejects help as she crosses a creek with her love interest _ relenting only to holding onto a common tree branch found lying on the ground. But their hands slide and link. A peck on the cheek sparks a squeamish look. A planned night of intimacy ends in awkward, clothed slumber.
"Indeed, there are many major commercial productions in China these days. The movies have displayed different kinds of glamor. It is unusual to suddenly make a basic, no-frills small film like this," Zhang told a news conference at South Korea's Pusan International Film Festival. The festival kicked off Wednesday with the first screening of "Under the Hawthorn Tree" outside of China.
"I was just touched by the love story of these two young people," he said. "I wanted to show the young people of today an innocent kind of love."
Zhang was a major driver behind China's deluge of historical and kung fu epics in the past decade, his contributions including the martial arts films "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" and the imperial court drama "Curse of the Golden Flower." He also dazzled the world with his massive opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which saw hundreds of performers form Chinese characters with large blocks.
Some critics have accused the 58-year-old filmmaker of pandering to the market and the Chinese government by favoring apolitical subject material.
Zhang, however, has returned to more down-to-earth projects since the Olympics, his first release being last year's comedy "A Simple Noodle Story," a Chinese adaptation of the 1984 Coen brothers film "Blood Simple."
"Under the Hawthorn Tree" harkens back to Zhang's smaller productions like "Not One Less" _ the story of a village teacher who ventures to the city to look for a missing student _ and "The Road Home," the romance that launched the career of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi.
Zhang added he avoided the sharp color palette often found in his previous works, saying he wanted to craft "a bland, peaceful state." He also cast two newcomers _ Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou _ in the lead roles.
While the film describes carefree, puppy love, the time it is set in was anything but idyllic. The 1996-1976 Cultural Revolution saw Communist China founding father Mao Zedong unleash often violent "red guards" on regular Chinese with suspected capitalistic sympathies. Millions were persecuted.
The politics of the Cultural Revolution are percolating in the background of Zhang's love story. The high school student is from a "rightist" family, her father sent to labor camp and her mother constantly berated at work. The geologist, however, is the son of an established party cadre. The girl's class background has her mother fretting about the possible impact of a secret love affair.
Zhang himself lived through the turmoil, suffering discrimination because his father served in the army of the Nationalist government that the Communists defeated in the civil war. Other relatives also fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists. He said the movie draws from his own anecdotes from the period but didn't give specifics. The political unrest also delayed Zhang's university education because he was ordered to work as a farm and factory worker. He was already in his late 20s when he entered the Beijing Film Academy.
"When I look back at that period today, those 10 years were a tragedy. There was a lot of suffering," Zhang said.
The Cultural Revolution is still a sensitive topic in China. A previous Zhang film that dealt with the topic, the 1994 release "To Live," was banned. Zhang contemporary Tian Zhuangzhuang apparently offended censors with his depiction of the Cultural Revolution in the 1993 release "The Blue Kite" and was forced to take a nine-year break.
But censorship has eased somewhat. "Under the Hawthorn Tree" is based on a novel first published on the Internet in 2007. Zhang's film adaptation was released in September and quickly became a hit _ although Zhang noted Wednesday that the movie doesn't portray the period as explicitly as "To Live."