Young Mainland actress Zhang Jingchu (“Peacock,” “Seven Swords”) bids fair to become the next Zhang Ziyi with her socko performance in “The Road,” a long-limbed tale of a provincial bus driver and his assistant-cum-wife spread across 40-odd years of recent Chinese history. Fourth feature by director Zhang Jiarui, best known for the smalltown ethnic drama “When Ruoma Was Seventeen,” opens in China on St. Valentine’s Day — now a major marketing slot in the Mainland calendar — and deserves to vault into the international arena via a prominent placing in a major western fest.
Yarn, set in the southern province of Yunnan, opens in the first half of the 1960s, when a self-sufficient revolutionary fervor still gripped the country and was not yet contaminated by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Li Chunfen (Zhang) is a bright-eyed teen who sells tickets on board a long-distance bus that weaves its way across the mountains between Longze and Xiangyang.
The grizzled driver, Old Cui (Fan Wei), is a “model worker” once snapped shaking hands with Chairman Mao and has been sent down from the North to boost the provinces. Eager to help in any way, Li throws herself into the job, meantime developing a shy crush on a young doctor, Liu Fendou (Nie Yuan), who’s been transferred from Shanghai as he’s a scion of a once-rich family.
Things turn a little darker a half-hour in as the story jumps a couple of years to the first half of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Liu has been sent to labor in a stone quarry, for some unspecified wrongdoing, and when Li pays him a clandestine visit that ends in a chaste kiss, she’s forced to sign a statement that she was “raped.” Cui has to use his personal clout with local Party officials to keep her on his bus.
By the early ’70s, the Party has decided that Cui needs a wife and, in a beautifully observed blind date during a screening of a North Korean movie, Li turns out to be his intended partner. Their wedding night, with both covered in embarrassment, humorously ends with them accidentally breaking a statuette of Mao and secretly burying the pieces in the garden.
Post-Cultural Revolution, as China settles down politically, all is not roses in the couple’s matrimonial garden. Cui has impotency problems and Li starts receiving letters from Liu (now back in Shanghai); when she tears them up unread, Cui secretly retrieves them.
On the surface, the marrieds give it their best shot, though a tragic development completely alters Li’s life. As the story wends its way through the commercialization of the ’90s to the present day, Li, now a lonely middle-aged woman living on her memories, learns the truth about her husband’s devotion.
There’s no shortage of movies set against the social and political changes in China during the past half-century: Zhang Yang’s “Sunflower” is a distinguished recent example. But “The Road” scores with Zhang’s remarkable perf — from bushy-tailed teen, through disappointed wife, to dogged oldie — that’s emotionally convincing at every level and finally moving in an unmelodramatic way. (Make-up, often a weak area in such Chinese pics, is especially good in the later scenes.)
Fan, a well-known comic who’s now branching out into serious roles (“The Parking Attendant in July,” “Gimme Kudos”), is also aces as Old Cui, a man of few words who lacks the emotional vocabulary to return his younger wife’s enthusiasm. Other roles are spot on, from the lowkey but firm Party rep (He Yuanqing) to an entrepreneurial type (Liang Kunsen) who clumsily tries to court the older Li.
Most notable, however, is the movie’s avoidance of demonizing China’s recent past as simply “bad old days,” and catching its many positive qualities, as well as a genuine nostalgia by many older folks for a time when the country had a strong sense of community and real values. (Compare “Gimme Kudos” for the same theme.) Overall, it’s a pic with no simple villains or heroes, just people making the best of it with the cards dealt.
Technically, film is topnotch, from Lin Liangzhong’s non-exoticized lensing of the Yunnan locations to period details in costumes and props. But it’s the perf by Zhang — who last year starred in the same helmer’s more colorful “A Bride from Shangri-La,” also set in Yunnan — that elevates pic throughout.