The Road Home
1999, G, 100 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Zheng Hao, Sun Honglei, Zhao Yuelin.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., June 29, 2001
The first images of Zhang Yimou's The Road Home are startling -- a jittery, through-the-window vantage on an unplowed mountain road winding through desolate rural China, photographed in flat, stark black-and-white. Here, thirtysomething city worker Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns home to arrange the funeral of his father, a former village schoolteacher who died suddenly at a provincial hospital after a snowstorm. Yusheng's mother (Zhao Yuelin) nurses hard, bitter grief, insisting that the body be carried back to the village by hand, with the coffin wrapped in a cloth she has woven on a rickety loom (a custom, the mayor points out, not followed since the Cultural Revolution). Yusheng chides her; a store-bought cloth would be just as nice, and surely a tractor, if not a car, could carry the coffin. But the discovery of an old photograph occasions a remembrance of the parents' courtship -- and an understanding of why the dead man's memory must be honored appropriately. Here, the film flashes back to the lush period-piece panorama typical of China's so-called “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers: the first cohort of Beijing Film Academy graduates to work as true artists in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, merging personal and political themes in grand, spectacular films that depict the vicissitudes of history and of the heart. In the flashback, Yusheng's mother is a spry girl of 18 (the phenomenal Zhang Ziyi), enamored of the handsome, citified new schoolteacher (Zheng Hao) in his turn-of-the-century scholar's dress. They fall in love on the sly, in “chance” meetings at a little-used water well (in a humorous moment, another suitor wrests the elder Luo's buckets away) and on walks through the countryside. Director Zhang, a former painter who began his career as a cinematographer (for Chen Kaige and others) and is noted for his symbolic use of color, especially red, imbues the flashback scenes with a golden, wistful glow. Certainly, the story (adapted by Bao Shi from his novel Remembrance) is epic, spanning two generations and two eras. It does not lack for political comment either. Yet the film is somehow unexpectedly simple, with a storybook romance quality and a fundamental innocence, and more intimate than Zhang's previous efforts. The range of its themes and visual style (stark to lush, then back again) give The Road Home abundant arthouse crowd appeal, much like that of Zhang's Ju Dou (a period-piece potboiler both erotic and cerebral). But it is resourceful actress Zhang Ziyi who makes the strongest impression, radiating her character's fierceness and the purity of her love in every minute of her screen time. Her performance here predates her star turn in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but is no less noteworthy.