Do Look Back
Adult children heading “home” has long been a popular theme in U.S. media. Just think back on a few recent melodramas featuring characters who return to their roots and/or rediscover themselves, once they head back to see parents, siblings, or traumatic childhood memories: Hope Floats, The Gilmore Girls, One True Thing, Judging Amy, The Myth of Fingerprints, Ed, Providence, Any Day Now . . . . The list goes on and on, as does the familiar storyline: if you can reconnect with some past grievance or difficulty, you can make yourself whole again. It’s all part of a grand plan and testament to the human spirit. As moving as such a story can be (and it’s at least as often corny as it is effective), the emotional displays tend to be large and the consequences contrived.
Knowing this story a little too well makes it all the more refreshing to find a version that actually feels new. Such is the small miracle offered by Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, a film that is breathtakingly unspectacular, simultaneously simple and nuanced. The script, adapted by Bao Shi from his own novel, tells a tale as basic as can be: an engineer from the city, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), comes home to the tiny village where he grew up, in order to help his mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), arrange for his father’s burial. He imagines, while driving the long, stark road home, that the whole business will be painful but also predetermined: a funeral is a funeral, after all.
On his arrival, however, Yusheng finds Di parked in the snowy yard, at the schoolhouse where his father taught for some forty years. Chilled to the bone and bereft, she agrees to return to her humble home with Yusheng, but insists that he arrange for a traditional procession and burial. These ideas include a group of men carrying her husband’s coffin from the city hospital to the village, no small feat, especially because, as the mayor informs Yusheng, all the young men, like Yusheng himself, have moved to the city, leaving only old men, women, and children in the village. As he contemplates just how to get this job done—indeed, whether he should get it done—Yusheng recalls the story of his parents’ courtship, and learns some things about himself in the process.
When the extended flashback begins, the film’s washed out black and white turns to brilliant, lush color. This choice surely enhances the past’s romance and sensual excitement, but the effect is actually more complex than that, suggesting the many colors that often attributed to memories, especially in the wake of loss. In this lengthy part of the film, Yusheng’s mother is reintroduced as a lovely young girl (played by Zhang Ziyi, the dazzling breakout star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here in her film debut, which was completed before the Ang Lee film), living with her blind grandmother in rural poverty. As soon as she hears the voice of the new schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), Di falls completely in love, and the rest of the film follows their proper, agonizingly respectful efforts to get together.
Di takes the first step, undertaking to prepare a delicious meal each day for Changyu’s lunch, while he and the other men of the village build the new schoolhouse. The trouble is, all the village girls are bringing special dishes to the communal table, for all the village men at work building the new schoolhouse, and it’s hard for Di to see who takes her dish, given that the girls must remain at a distance while the men eat. These scenes, repeated several times, are so lovely and carefully composed that it’s difficult to describe them: as the men approach the table, you see only their torsos and arms, their dark clothes blending together so they look like a herd. At the same time, the sounds of their shuffling footsteps, mixed with dishes rattling, overcome any individual voices. Poor Di strains to see who picks up her dish, but cannot.
Their eventual meeting, when Changyu comes to her home (according to the village code, he visits each home for a meal), allows them to reveal, without speaking, their mutual admiration, and from this moment, Di is determined to prove herself worthy of the city gentleman’s affections. Just as their romance might begin, though, Changyu is called back to the city because of ominous-sounding but ineffable “political trouble.” While other villagers gossip and then begin to forget their beloved schoolteacher, Di is firm in her resolve to await her husband-to-be’s return.
Zhang’s films are always pulsing with rich details of color and sound—think of the dyed fabrics flapping in Ju Dou (1989), the fabulous costumes and carefully prepared foods of Raise the Red Lantern (1991), or the delicate but persistent clink-clink of mah-jongg tiles in Shanghai Triad (1995)—all of the above made with the director’s former partner and muse, Gong Li. Always attuned to the textures and sensual experiences of daily life, even when set against the relatively epic backdrop of To Live (1994), Zhang recently returned to a simpler style in Not One Less (1998), using non-professionals as performers and scaling down his backdrop for the story of a schoolteacher in a tale more mundane than earth-shaking.
The Road Home is similarly scaled back, but also suffused with a nostalgia that’s unusual for Zhang, best known for his critiques of Chinese traditions, and rigid gender and class structures. Here Di’s passionate, naive devotion to Changyu is unquestioned, a function of her vibrant youth and optimism, her utter lack of experience, self-consciousness, or cynicism. While her yearning and beauty recall conventional romantic heroines (and indeed, the aged Di’s home has on its walls posters for Cameron’s Titanic, the most overblown romantic movie in recent memory—she knows her own framework), Di’s tenacity is something else. And though the film is replete with images of her incredible face—smiling, breathless, dissolving into vast golden fields and sun-dappled backroads—it is the character’s own absolute faith in herself, her determination to endure despite all political or social edicts, that grants the film unusual, and unusually moving, weight.