Road Home, The (Wo de fu qin mu qin) (China, 1999) *** 1/2
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Bao Shi. Photography, Hou Yong. Editing, Zhai Ru. Music, San Bao. Art direction, Cao Jiuping. Produced by Zhao Yu. Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei, Zheng Hao, Zhao Yuelin, Li Bin, et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In Mandarin, subtitled. 100 minutes. Rated G. At the New Art Theater.
Not too many years ago, the heavily propagandistic Chinese cinema was unknown in most countries. But that changed with the "fifth generation" of imaginative, creative filmmakers among which Zhang Yimou was and is a star director who commands international admiration. He began with "Red Sorghum" (1988), went on to such jewels as "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "The Story of Qiu Ju," To Live," "Not One Less," and others.
Fabled director Joseph von Sternberg (1894-1969) discovered Marlene Dietrich, created her screen persona, also had an affair with the lady. Most importantly, the two made a series of great movies. Zhang Yimou did the same with actress Gong Li. When their association came to a professional and personal end, Zhang-ites were concerned. Not to worry. The director changed styles with "Not One Less" and with 'The Road Home," opting for marvelous simplicity and human interest. He has said that his motivation was "a reaction against the current tendencies in Chinese cinema, against the logic of the market. I wanted [my last two films] to be simple, immediate and anchored in reality." The reaction was in opposition to the market economy, lack of cultural life and the "vulgar films [that] dominate our screens." Sounds like an anti-Hollywood summary.
"The Road Home" is set in our day in a small North China village. On rutted snow-covered roads, 30-plus Zhao Di is driven in an SUV from the unspecified city where he works (in an unidentified business that seems to make good money) to his native village from which he has been long absent. His father has died. He was the much-loved local schoolteacher who ages ago had come there, built a school and taught generations of children.
The deceased's widow insists on a traditional, old-fashioned burial. This means that several men must carry the coffin, on foot, to the resting place in/by the village. The problem is that the place is not even a village by western standards. (At some point I counted the near-totality of the gathered adults: 20 to 30 at most!) And since the late teacher had died in a neighboring city (distance unspecified) unavailable money is needed to pay the pall-bearers and provide food, drinks and cigarettes for them. It is not a practical idea, but the widow is adamant, since that's the way her late husband will find "his road home." The son does not hesitate to provide the funds.
This introduction is in black-and-white film, black with a blueish cast, as though the film stock had been tinted --or else color film was developed as black-and-white. Soon however come flashbacks, as the son reminisces about his father. These are in gorgeous color. The story proceeds in flashbacks and flashforwards. What is unusual is that it reverses the usual procedure of showing the present in color and the past in black and white.
The past goes back to the distant days when, to the locals' delight, 20-year old teacher Luo Changyu (played by Zheng Hao) came to the village from a (we suppose) Teachers College in a city (he was breaking some unspecified rules). He was an instant hit--especially with 18-year old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) for whom it was love at first sight.
(This was the actress's first feature. Her second, as the miraculously energetic young woman in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" made her an international star.) Miss Zhang has a radiant, delicious beauty that is used in irresistible ways. There is no question about the outcome of the girl-teacher relationship, but it is lovely to follow in a set of steps which I cannot reveal. Both young people are well matched, lovable, caring and sincere.
Back to the teacher's first day in school. The village population gathers outside to hear him address his pupils: "Learn mathematics, learn the present, learn the past, keep a journal." Then "spring, summer, fall, winter. In everything there is a purpose," and so on. It's lovely. Our own college kids could do worse than follow those urgings, especially as so much of today's generation is sadly uninformed about both present and past.
The events or non-events of the past, always in color, are lovingly depicted, in all seasons. The latter aresplendid sights splendidly photographed in wide-screen. There are good times and less good times, but nothing really irreparable happens. Even a broken dish that has sentimental value is fixed by an itinerant fellow who makes clear that for what he charges they could buy a new plate. What nice symbolism here! Attachment to things and to people, respect of the best in traditions or old values. And the love story goes on with a freshness and a "familiar unfamiliarity" that cannot but touch.
There's humor too. It comes naturally. Early on, when the girl is at the well, she sees the teacher holding a bucket. As he starts for the same well he is delayed by an eager fellow. She empties the water in her containers so as to still be there when the man arrives. (He does not.)
As for the business of carrying the deceased, there are some very interesting developments. "Goodbye Mr. Chips" comes to mind.
The movie is nearly flawless. A number of people mentioned to me that its music (most melodious) is like a rip-off of the score in "Titanic." Does not bother me. What does is a lack of, shall we say, journalistic information: who, where, when, why, what, how... This may not disturb many a viewer, but for those of us who are interested in history, politics and such, there's a bit of frustration in store. After all, this is not a fantasy, not a fairy-tale, but a movie that no matter how perennial and universal in many ways, still is anchored in its cultural/historical background.