Director: Zhang Yimou
As in most of the best films coming out of China these days (Shower, Not One Less), the basic sentiment of Zhang Yimou's gorgeous and deeply touching new film, THE ROAD HOME, is a nostalgia for the simpler, better days of the recently vanished past.
Adapted by Chinese author Bao Shi from his novel, Remembrance, it's the story of a harried, somewhat jaded businessman of the new China (Sun Honglei) who returns to his snow-covered, northern China village after many years to bury his father, the village school teacher. But when he arrives, he finds an unexpected complication: his father has died in a neighboring town and, in accordance with local custom and superstition, his elderly mother wants his casket hand-carried back to his own village, so his spirit will find its way home.
As he struggles with the logistics of this task - which the mayor tells him will require no less than 35 men to accomplish - the businessman/narrator begins to think about his parents' unusually successful marriage, and the lost world in which it was born. Suddenly, the wintry black-and-white photography turns into an explosion of autumn color and we're in a completely different movie - one in which the mother, Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) is 18 years old, and the village's most beautiful unmarried maiden. It's the day when a new schoolteacher (Zheng Hao) has come to the village from the big city, and, on Di's part, it's love at first sight. The sound of his voice emanating authoritatively from the schoolhouse is music to her ears, and she can think of absolutely nothing else.
The film eventually returns to the complications of its framing story, but this idyllic love story - which maintains Di's point of view and chronicles the various beats of meeting, recognizing their love and a near-fatal obstacle - is clearly the meat of the film. And it's a small masterpiece of the genre. We never even see the lovers so much as kiss (the film is G-rated), but director Zhang skillfully makes us feel everything his heroine feels and, in the process, builds an understated but truly grand passion.
Like all nostalgia films, this one sees the past through rose-colored glasses. It makes no reference to, for instance, the massive famines that consumed China during this same period of the late '50s and early '60s. And the references to political oppression are modest. But, on a personal scale, THE ROAD HOME shines with the kind of honesty that's very scarce in today's ultra-manipulative cinema. It's a veritable gallery of carefully arranged and subtly revealing images that evoke the power of first love and honor the small, human things in every generation that make life worthwhile.
And its casting could not be better. Zhang Ziyi - the feisty princess of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - is a vision of dedicated young love, with a smile that lights up the world. The sequence in which she sees her future husband for the first time as they pass on a country road is an instant classic.
In a recent interview, director Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou) said he made this film for a specific purpose, as a reaction against the 'current tendencies' in Chinese cinema and Chinese life, where 'the market economy dominates everything and our cultural life has lost its way'.
But his film rises
above this specific intention to be something distinctly universal: an ode to
the old but enduring human values, an homage to the profound effect the life
of one good man can have on a community, a celebration of the exquisite
pleasure of doing some small thing for someone you love.
page courtesy of Wellington Film Society