The Wild Strawberries
China, 2010, colour, 1.85:1, 99 mins.
Director: Chen Bing 陈兵.
Unadorned tale of a “pure love” during the Cultural Revolution stumbles only at the final fence.
Northeast China, 1971, during the Cultural Revolution. At a time of heightened military tension between China and the Soviet Union following the 1969 Zhenbao Island Incident, soldier Jiao Mingliang is accidentally killed while rescuing a young boy, Li Duoduo, during the collapse of an air-raid shelter. His widow, young Luo Xuemei (Zhou Chuchu), is co-opted by the Red Army authorities into making heroic propaganda out of his death by hastily staging an opera, using music from other model operas. Later, while working at the Red Star Munitions Factory, Luo Xuemei meets handsome Zhu Fuzhong (Shang Yubo), a weapons tester, who had earlier written her an anonymous letter sympathising with her exploitation, and the two start a clandestine affair. Factory director Du Yuchun (Dong Jiang), a widower with a nine-year-old son, asks her to participate in radio broadcasts with Zhao Haiqiang (Xiao Yang). When she turns down Du’s offer of marriage and promotion, Du forces her hapless fellow worker, Li Xianling (Sun Kai), to spy on her and Fuzhong.
Quietly shot at the same time as Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋 (2010, Zhang Yimou 张艺谋), and set during the same period of the Cultural Revolution, The Wild Strawberries 野草莓 is a similar portrayal of “pure love” but has a very different feel. Zhang’s slicker production values and focus on tiny details make Hawthorn the superior, more finessed production; but Strawberries, after an uncertain start, also weaves its own distinctive spell through more mature performances and a simpler directorial style.
Adapted from the 2001 short story The Secret Love 地下爱情 (literally, “Underground Love”) by Sun Chunping 孙春平, a northeast-based writer of Manchurian descent – though actually shot for convenience around Chongqing in central China – Strawberries is set in the middle of the Cultural Revolution when there was a real possibility of war between China and the Soviet Union. With no large-scale scenes, and most set around a decrepit factory, the film makes a virtue of its modest production values in sketching the simplicity of life during the era in a very realistic way, with its spartan values and sealed-off way of life. The central love affair – at odds with the highly conservative moral climate of the time – thus gains in strength, with even the barest physical contact (such as in Luo Xuemei and Zhu Fuzhong’s first breathless dalliance) gaining in power.
The staging by writer-director Chen Bing 陈兵, a vice-professor at Beijing Film Academy making his first feature, is of the simplest kind, with plain, single shots, throwing emphasis on the textured photography by Shi Yue 史岳 (Soundless Wind Chime 无声风铃, 2009) and the main performances. [The late] TV/theatre actor Shang Yubo 尚于博 makes a quietly virile male lead and, in her first leading role, 25-year-old Sichuan-born actress Zhou Chuchu 周楚楚 (Gangster Rock 混混天团, 2010) makes a responsive young widow without over-drawing the character’s dilemma of being used by the authorities for propaganda purposes.
More’s the shame, then, that the film blows its credentials with a brief epilogue set 30 years later that’s entirely at odds with the subtlety of the previous 90 minutes. This jarring section could easily be eliminated, turning Strawberries back into a 7/10 movie. Though the story starts around the turn of the 1960s/1970s, during the Zhenbao Island Incident, internal evidence points to it stretching to a few years later, as posters advertise the 1972 version of The White Haired Girl 白毛女 and the leads at one point watch the 1974 film The Scout 侦察兵, directed by Li Wenhua 李文化.
Produced by Beijing Youth Film Studio (CN), Beijing Dream Garden International Cultural Development (CN), Dragon King International (CN).
Script: Cui Zi’en, Chen Bing. Short story: Sun Chunping. Photography: Shi Yue. Editing: Qian Lingling. Music: Zhao Ting. Art direction: Cao Anjun. Costumes: Zhang Yue. Sound: Sa Rina. Executive direction: Wang Liao.
Cast: Zhou Chuchu (Luo Xuemei), Shang Yubo (Zhu Fuzhong), Dong Jiang (Du Yuchun, factory director), Yang Dong (Yang Chang), Xiao Yang (Zhao Haiqiang), Sun Kai (Li Xianling).
Premiere: Macau International Movie Festival, Dec 2010.
Release: China, 29 Nov 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 26 Jun 2011.)