Denmark may have its Dogma, but in China, director Zhang Yimou has started his own anti-commercial, pro-simplicity movement, aimed at communicating basic stories of human interaction in a straightforward way. Zhang’s character study The Road Home is his latest attempt to shape utter realism into a kind of folk-poetry cinema, and it succeeds admirably, without fanfare, largely on the strength of actress Zhang Ziyi’s sunny personality and the gentle, deliberate rhythms of Chinese country life a generation ago.
In the spirit of the best nostalgic village pics, only one thing happens –and yet it turns out to mean everything to its characters. The black-and-white prologue opens in the present day, with a busy urban professional named Luo Yusheng (played by Sun Honglei) returning to his native village of Sanhetun in the rolling hills of Northern China for the funeral of his father, whom he hasn’t seen in years. From his grieving mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin, a nonactor like most of the cast), Luo learns that his father, a retired schoolteacher named Luo Changyu, died in a neighboring town, and furthermore that his mother insists on following an almost-vanished funerary tradition: men from the village must carry the teacher’s body back home on foot, as a sign of respect. The son protests–there aren’t enough young men left in the village –but his mother is adamant. If not enough men can be found, we’ll hire some from a nearby town. And then the old woman sits down at her antique hand loom to weave a covering for the coffin.
Amid this onrush of emotion, the B&W film goes into a gorgeously composed and photographed color flashback, a visual symphony of red and gold tones set in the 1950s, when the new schoolteacher Luo Changyu arrived in the village from Beijing and the local beauty, the young Zhao Di (actress Zhang Ziyi) fell in love with him. Steadfast love, nothing more. That’s the payoff in director Zhang’s gentle folk tale (from a screenplay by Bao Shi, who wrote the original novel, Remembrance). The director knows his film history. This spare tale of fundamental human emotion could have sprung directly from the silent films of Victor Sjöström or F.W. Murnau, or even from the contemporary Iranian films of Abbas Kiarostami, whom Zhang reportedly admires. She falls for him, he finally realizes it and reciprocates, he is called away for political questioning, she devotedly waits for him, and they are eventually reunited. That’s that. What could be more moving?
Zhang Ziyi was one of the best things about Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her character’s sly transformation from a spoiled, demure young lady into an avenging tigress of martial arts and romance lent a special dimension to the story. In The Road Home, made in 1999 before Crouching Tiger, actress Zhang essentially plays one note to perfection–diligent, faithful, true love–the kind of emotion that makes a young woman race across a field and through the woods, clutching a carefully wrapped dish of food for her sweetheart, desperately trying to catch the speeding horse cart that’s carrying him away, to see him one more time, maybe for the last time, and failing.
When the new teacher first arrives, eighteen-year-old Zhao Di is presumably bound by the same traditions of arranged marriage as the other local women, but as soon as work begins on the schoolhouse, she decides handsome newcomer Luo Changyu (played by Zheng Hao) is the one for her. In her red kerchief and quilted peasant blouse, the prettiest girl in the village could be the model for the ideal Maoist revolutionary female–pitching in to cook meals for the workers building the school, fetching water from the well, weaving cloth on her old loom to help decorate the school’s rafters with righteous red Communist bunting. But in one important way she’s a rebel. When it comes to the schoolteacher, Zhao Di is determined to follow the dictates of her own heart, thus becoming the village’s first “love match.” No one dares stand in her way.
Di follows the teacher everywhere, arranging opportunities to run into him. Both of them are shy (he is twenty), but behind her bashfulness is expectancy and quiet resolve. She listens outside the school while he trains the children in rote repetition of aphorisms, and when the time finally comes for him to dine at her mother’s house (the young bachelor eats at a different family’s home each night in rotation), Di cooks a special meal. We don’t really get to know Luo Changyu; he’s characterized as a dedicated teacher, and we can see that he’s very reticent, but almost everything else about him we learn through Di’s eyes.
Later, when Luo Changyu is summoned back to the city and Di can’t catch his cart to say good-bye, she loses the hair clasp he has given her, and it almost destroys her. That’s the sort of person this film is about. To compensate for him in the four years he’s away, Di spends hours repairing the school’s paper windows, and lovingly pays to have a broken bowl mended–the bowl from which her beloved ate.
My favorite of the six films Zhang Yimou made with his erstwhile protégée and girlfriend Gong Li was 1992’s The Story of Qiu Ju, in which the Chinese movie goddess portrayed –against type–an uncomplicated peasant woman intent on getting her just deserts from lazy, conniving bureaucrats. Since his breakup with Gong, Zhang has apparently gone back to his roots in several respects. Not One Less (1999) and now The Road Home, two otherwise dissimilar movies, reflect Zhang’s preoccupation with preserving the traditional community spirit of hard work and togetherness that Zhang believes is diminishing in villages all over China. Neglected small-town schools, like the ones in both films, are emblematic of the shift in priorities brought on by China’s increasing urbanization and adoption of “free-market principles.”
Thus the director of the patriotic war drama Red Sorghum and the skeptical Cultural Revolution saga To Live –who himself was “sent down” for farm labor and a job in a spinning mill during China’s great upheaval in the late ’60s and ’70s–now finds himself pining for the good old days when Chairman Mao beamed down from every schoolhouse wall and people pitched in and helped each other. “Chinese society has changed so fast that most people feel lost,” says Zhang in an interview quoted in the press notes for The Road Home. “These days the market economy dominates everything and our cultural life has lost its way. Really vulgar commercial films dominate our screens. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I find myself wondering if people really like such films.” The protagonists of most of Zhang’s films, as well as those of Xiu Xiu, the Sent-Down Girl and other recent protest-minded dramas from China, are paragons of enlightened self-interest, Chinese style, striving to reconcile individual longings with the collective will, and being thwarted every step of the way by an uncaring government. Now that the government is suddenly embracing frontier laissez-faire capitalism, Zhang’s complaints against the establishment extend into the prevailing taste of the film industry as well, and he yearns for a little of that old revolutionary fervor. Welcome to the new world order, Mr. Zhang.
In the meantime, Zhang’s nostalgic solidarity (try to imagine the story recast in Depression-era America and –boom!–instant John Ford), combined with Zhang Ziyi’s expressive face, shows us exactly what director Zhang feels is missing from modern life. He’s got a point, of course. And The Road Home is the ideal sociopolitical valentine to bygone days, a heart-warming romance for people who would rather think about matters such as the public mood of China and the effects of global free trade than about the latest movie gossip.