The Road Home (1999)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-07-13
"The Road Home" has a lot in its favor: Zhang Yimou lavishing his loving camera work on a new female star; a heart tugging story of love won, lost and won again; Zhang's extraordinary use of a limited palette of colors that makes a glimpse in the distance of a bit or red or pink flash like lightning across the night sky and his uncanny ability to get just the right performance from a varied group of actors. It looks great, has a simple and uncluttered screenplay and even has a happy ending.

It is Zhang Ziyi's first role. She is given real star treatment and shows that she deserves it. Zhang Yimou lights and frames her close-ups and medium shots like they were portraits by Frans Hals. To make sure that no one misses his painterly approach he underlines it when he has the voice over narrator that the first time he went to Di's home and saw her framed in the doorway it was like looking at a figure in a fine painting.

There are two "roads home": one is the road that the coffin bearing the body of Luo Chang Yu, the revered local teacher who died at another village while raising money to rebuild the school. According to ancient traditions, which Zhao Di, his widow, insists must be followed, the coffin must be carried by men walking the entire distance from where he died to his home village. It is a link with the past and with her husband; the superstition to which she clings is that he must be carried or his spirit won't know the way home. The other is the road traveled by Luo Yusheng, his son, when he comes from the city to the tiny village and does honor to the memory of his father and the wishes of his mother.

The arrival of Luo Yusheng, the discussion with the village elders of the burial plans and his coming to terms with his mother and her memories form the first half of a framing story. The second half is the funeral procession itself, the burial and Luo Yusheng realizing how much his father meant to the men and women of the village. While it seemed there wouldn't be enough men to carry the coffin and bearers had to be hired from the next village over 100 of Luo Chang Yu's former students showed up in a snowstorm to accompany him on his final journey.

The story within the frame is the arrival of Luo Chang Yu in the village decades before and the very hesitant but determined courtship between Luo and Zhao Di, considered by all to be the most beautiful girl in the area. It is a lovely story told very well with just enough suspense (will Luo be allowed to stay in the village by his superiors? will Zhao Di ever find the hair-clip she lost, one that he gave her before he left for his appointment in the city?) to keep things going.

Zhang Yimou shows his usual technical mastery--there is a crane shot of Zhang Ziyi running along the side of a hill that begins at the 31:00 mark that goes from "that is a nice shot" to "how did he do that and where did he build the crane platform" in a few seconds.

My difficulty with "The Road Home" is that Zhang Yimou set it in 1958-1960 during the Great Leap Forward. While no one expects movies to be historically accurate neither should they be anachronistic to this extent. The idyllic nameless hamlet where it takes place could not have existed during the economic dislocation and famine of that period. It would be as if an American movie set in Oklahoma in 1933 and missing the Dust Bowl. "Judou", a great movie by Zhang Yimou, sends a big gushy valentine to the justice system in the PRC. "The Road Home" is a much lesser effort but is more pernicious--Judou, as played by Gong Li, is actively engaged in getting redress for her husband who has been injured by a brutish local official. Zhao Di and Luo Chang Yu fall in love during a time of horrible social dislocation and mass death but it never shows up onscreen.

I may completely wrong about this, of course, since Zhang Yimou may have freighted "The Road Home" with symbols and signifiers that a westerner would never understand (and would be missed by the censors) but would be obvious to the Chinese audience.