REVIEW: On "The Road Home," Zhang Yimou Returns to Form
by G. Allen Johnson
[EDITOR’S NOTE: G. Allen Johnson reviewed “The Road Home” at its Berlin debut for indieWIRE. The film will open this weekend in New York and Los Angeles.]
Like a collapsed star that goes supernova, “The Road Home” compresses
director Zhang Yimou‘s deepest thoughts — concerning his own midlife
and mid-career crises, and worries about the moral direction of China —
and allows them to burst forth in an explosion of colorful, honest
emotion. Made back-to-back with “Not One Less,” which co-won the top
prize at Venice, “The Road Home” may well have completed one of the
greatest 1-2 punches in cinema history.
“Not One Less” was a thematic return for Zhang to the lyrical roots of
the Fifth Generation movement, but it was also a radical departure from
his trademark big screen composition. It was low budget, hand-held, and
populated with an amateur cast. While the Columbia Pictures
co-production “The Road Home” (to be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures
Classics) is similar in philosophy story-wise, its visual style is
completely different — large-scale, like early Zhang classics “Red
Sorghum” and “Ju Dou,” conveying simple emotions through powerful
Beginning in the present day, which is shot in an ugly, flat black and
white, Bao Shi’s adaptation of his own novel “Remembrance” is about Luo
Yusheng (Sun Honglei), a businessman who travels in his SUV from the
city to the country to bury his father, a longtime teacher in a remote
village who has died suddenly. His shriveled old mother, Zhao Di (Zhao
Yuelin), insists the body should be hand carried by local men while she
weaves the funeral cloth, an old custom. Yusheng, of course, just wants
to transport the body quickly to burial in a vehicle.
His mother’s steadfast adherence to old traditions causes Yusheng to
reflect on his parents’ courtship more than 40 years ago. That era is
shot in brilliant color, a rural village bursting with bright hope. Zhao
Di (beautiful Zhang Ziyi, in her film debut) is a young girl living in
poverty with a blind grandmother when she falls in love with the new
teacher’s voice. That teacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), is a handsome
young man from the city — her comrade in shining armor.
Instantly deciding Changyu is her man, Zhao Di becomes a pioneer of
sorts, breaking with the cultural tradition of arranged marriages and
actually choosing her mate. Her determination is unbound; she fixes him
succulent meals, tries to arrange “accidental” meetings while drawing
water at the town well, and finally succeeds in winning Changyu’s love.
But Changyu suddenly has to return to the city; it is strongly hinted he
was in some political trouble and may have taken the teaching position
to get away from those problems.
In the ensuing months, Zhao Di’s broken-hearted demeanor is symbolized
when she inadvertently breaks the china bowl in which she served
Changyu’s meals. In a great example of Zhang’s careful filmmaking and
powerful simplicity, the bowl is meticulously repaired by a craftsman,
who doesn’t hesitate to remind Zhao Di’s grandmother that a new bowl
would cost less than the time-consuming repair.
It’s clear that Zhang feels the increasingly modernized, capitalistic
China of today is missing old values; the Chinese may have more money
and more gadgets, but they are not as happy. And it’s no accident that
both Changyu in “The Road Home” and the lead girl of “Not One Less” are
teachers; judging by these films, education in China is underfunded and
underappreciated, and Zhang thinks improving the quality of education
will help China regain its moral compass.
Like Chinese society, Zhang must also hark back to the past to move
successfully into the future. Since breaking up with muse Gong Li, Zhang
has struggled artistically. His groundbreaking movies with Gong are
mostly classics, but they became bigger and more complex machines, and
their last collaboration, “Shanghai Triad,” was pretty to look at but
said virtually nothing.
With “Not One Less” and “The Road Home” (both superbly lit by “Blue
Kite” cinematographer Hou Yong) Zhang recaptures the lyrical simplicity
of Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth” — which put Chinese cinema on the world
map and for which Zhang served as cinematographer — and Zhang’s own “Red
Sorghum” and “The Story of Qiu Ju.” And in Zhang Ziyi, who will next
appear in Ang Lee‘s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in support of Chow
Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, he has found an exciting new talent who well
complements his style.
A bold, sweeping saga, “The Road Home” is Zhang’s hope that true,
personal, unconditional love won’t become as antiquated as a handmade
bowl, or a well in a land of running water.