The age of innocence

Director Zhang Yimou’s quest to find the right girl

The age of innocence

The innocent look: Zhou Dongyu

Like many men, Zhang Yimou has a problem with women. Finding one that he likes, that is.

The award-winning Chinese director searched far and wide for someone to play the lead role in his latest film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree. The film – set before the end of the Cultural Revolution – focuses on an unlikely romance between a shy farm girl, Jingqiu, and Laosan, the son of an army general.

Zhang said he needed an actress who was not only pretty but also could portray innocence. He sent his production team to the nation’s top acting schools for weeks, auditioning thousands of students. But he turned down the candidate short list. “Not even close,” the China Daily reports him as remarking.

The production team then moved on to six other cities around the country but the director still wasn’t happy with his choices. His major complaint: “Young girls today may look deceptively innocent, but their eyes suggest otherwise.” When you’re China’s cinematic maestro you can get away with comments like these.

Finally, after auditioning over 10,000 women, Zhang found Zhou Dongyu, a 19 year-old high school student from Hebei province who had no previous acting experience. Zhang said he chose her for the role because her eyes are “as clear as a mountain fountain,” says China News Service.

Though it remains to be seen whether Zhou can act, Zhang has always had a good eye for talent himself. Not only did he launch the movie career of Gong Li, China’s best-known actress, he also gave Zhang Ziyi her first film role.

As it turns out, Zhang Yimou is not the only one who says he has a problem finding actresses for wholesome roles. Another well-known director Wang Quan’an also expressed frustration in casting the leading role for his new movie White Deer Plain, which also calls for an actress of “innocent charm”, says CCTV. The broadcaster ran an accompanying editorial to the story with the headline: “Mainland film industry’s biggest weakness: pure and innocent actresses have gone extinct.”

Their complaint? Many young women are going into the film industry with little passion for the art itself and more in hope of becoming mistresses to starstruck millionaires.

Zhang’s complaints go a step further. “If you look at pictures taken in the 1960s or 1970s, you will see the aura of purity around every man or woman in those pictures. That’s a bygone quality you hardly see in young faces today,” he says.

But this seems to go beyond prevailing social attitudes and behaviours, as far as the director is concerned, into the gene pool itself. “Kids today are uglier and uglier, as beautiful women don’t have babies with handsome men; they marry coalmine owners, millionaires or old people.”

Although Zhang’s rather Darwinian assessment was meant as a satire (coal magnates will be chuckling, no doubt), it does point to changing social currents. Gone are the days when chastity and devotion were to be displayed as leading virtues. Earlier this year, a female college student declared on a TV talk show that she would rather be a rich man’s concubine than marry a poor man for love.

And in a survey of 992 female college students conducted by Guangzhou Women’s Federation from January to March, 60% said they wanted to marry into a rich family. Most of the girls believed that marriage was not necessarily related to love.

It’s the type of sentiment thatsaw South China Normal University launch a morality drive this week. The Guangdong-based college has said it will expel any student, male or female, that has sex with a married person, says the Shanghai Daily. The newspaper added that the rule was especially designed to stop young female students becoming the mistresses of rich businessmen for pecuniary gain. Chongqing Normal University soon followed with a similar rule.

After the news broke, students around the country lobbied against the proposals, arging that universities have no right to intrude on their private lives. Many thought it a violation of their human rights and insisted that students should be free to have sex with whomever they like. There will be a few college lecturers nodding their heads in silent agreement.

Some pragmatists now worry that the move could backfire and that – given the prevalence of the “mistress culture” – some schools may end up expelling half of their student body. That sounds like an exaggeration. If not, it could be that innocence, like true love, is easier to find in films than in real life.

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