A boldly conceived movie in which emotional texture is paramount, mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” takes the simplest of stories and weaves a seductive, extremely moving portrait of a young woman’s unshakable love. Picture is very different in look and tone from Zhang’s previous works but seems likely to do solid niche business internationally and maybe extend his following into wider arenas.
Following “Not One Less” (shot immediately before the current item), “Road” reps a strong double comeback for Zhang after considerable negative publicity about both works before the 1999 Cannes fest. When “Less” was offered a slot in Un Certain Regard and “Road” rejected outright, Zhang publicly “withdrew”both pics, with the former going on to win top prize at the Venice fest and garner good reviews. (Pic goes out Stateside through Sony Classics this month.) Initial reaction at Berlin to “Road,” which opened in China last fall, was very warm.
Among mainland movies, one has to think back to Sun Zhou’s mid-’90s “Heartstrings” for a pic of such emotional clout from such potentially flimsy material. At its simplest level, “Road” is a son’s remembrance of the story of his parents’ courtship during the late ’50s in a small village in Hebei province. On deeper levels, pic deals with such unfashionable subjects as the permanence of memories, imperturbable faith and the need to retain older values in today’s aggressively market-driven China.
It’s no accident that the opening and closing, set in the present, are shot in grim, unfriendly black-and-white, as businessman Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns to his native village of Sanhetun after the sudden death of his father. Luo’s aged mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), rebuffs his suggestion that the coffin should be brought home from the hospital by tractor, and insists that they follow the age-old custom of having it carried by local men and that she herself weave the funeral cloth.
As Luo recalls in voiceover the famous story of his parents’ love affair, pic morphs into color and back into an initially unspecified period, with the 18 -year-old Zhao Di (newcomer Zhang Ziyi, soon to be seen in Ang Lee’s swordplay costumer “Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon”) falling for the handsome new teacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), when he arrives to build a school in the tiny, remote burg.
As the males construct the building, Zhao Di joins the other women in cooking them food, patiently waiting for the time when it will be the turn of her and her mother (Li Bin) to host the teacher for a meal at their home. Just when the love story is beginning, Luo Changyu is suddenly ordered to leave, prompting one of the movie’s most magical sequences, in which Zhao Di runs hither and yon with a bowl of his favorite steamed dumplings as she tries to cut him off at the pass.
On paper the story may sound trite. But the accumulated detail in Zhang’s careful mounting (with an entire sequence devoted to repairing a broken bowl, in closeup) and the power of Hou Yong’s widescreen lensing and San Bao’s filigree orchestral score, are such that the movie starts to exert a strong emotional undertow in its second half. After Zhao Di has kept a seemingly endless vigil, Luo Changyu finally returns for one day, on the lam, before going back to “the city” where he’s been ordered to stay. The pair aren’t reunited until two years later.
Notably, Zhang is not concerned with exterior events, despite the fact that the flashback section is set during one of Communist China’s most turbulent and ghastly periods. The reason for Luo Changyu’s sudden departure is never specified, though it’s obviously part of a political purge; and apart from a mild slogan painted on the school wall, the production design is almost completely free of the usual paraphernalia in ’50s stories (banners, slogans, et al.).
Everything is focused on the central love story and, more specifically, Zhao Di, through whose eyes and feelings we observe the strength of the relationship — a strength that plays into the pic’s final section as the funeral procession is arranged in the present day. Luo Changyu himself is little seen and backgrounded even less: We accept Zhao Di’s commitment to the man in her life even though we see only her side of it.
As the young female lead, Zhang’s latest discovery, Zhang Ziyi, is both seriously cute and perfectly cast. In contrast to helmer’s early peasant pics with actress Gong Li, “Road” isn’t a mud-under-the-fingernails sexual meller. Instead, it draws on conventions of mainstream Chinese romances — “poetic narrative,” in the director’s words — but refines them to a high degree of purity that’s almost abstract: Zhao Di has perfect teeth and a flawless complexion, pretty pigtails and natty peasant clothes. When the pic reverts to B&W and the present day, the effect is startling.
As the contempo son, Sun is largely a blank page, his emotions conveyed by voiceover. Both Li, as Zhao Di’s blind, sharp-tongued mother, and Zhao, as the present-day Zhao Di, are excellent. Original Chinese title simply means “My Father and Mother.”