THE ROAD HOME (Chinese title: Wo de fu qin mu qin)
directed by Zhang Yimou (1999)
reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Rating: *** ½ out of ****
The Road Home is a romantic tale of first love. It is told with honesty, and is deeply touching.
Set in the North China village of Sanhetun the film starts with Yusheng (Sun Honglei), a successful businessman returning home because Changyu (Zheng Hao), his father, had recently passed away. Caught in a blizzard while traveling around the district raising funds to renovate his school, Changyu was taken seriously ill. The combination of old age and a previously undetected heart problem resulted in a serious illness, from which he quickly expired. The body lay in a neighbouring town. Yusheng, who had not been back for several years, now returns home to comfort his mother and to make funeral arrangements.
However, his mother, Di (Zhang Ziyi), insists that her deceased husband has to be carried home on foot on the backs of a retinue of mourners. This old custom is believed to help the departed spirit find its way home. Unfortunately all the healthy young adults had already left the village for better prospects elsewhere.
The first part is filmed in black and white, which emphasizes the somber severity of winter in rural China. The son sees an old photograph of his parents taken a year after their marriage, and suddenly we flash back to the young Di awaiting the arrival of the new teacher, filmed in glorious colour.
Nineteen year old Zhang Ziyi starring in her first feature film, is radiantly beautiful and totally convincing in her role as a youthful innocent Di attracted to the young Changyu. She displays her love by the various schemes she dreams up to attract his attention. For example she carefully prepares a meal every day for the workers building the new schoolhouse, but secretly hopes that Changyu would take it. Being the prettiest in the village, she is asked to weave a special red cloth to be hung inside the school, and she does so lovingly. She draws water from a more distant well because it overlooks the school and she can hear his teaching. She waits for him by the road along which he walks home followed by a band of young students, and she is overjoyed when he gives her a fleeting smile. Twenty-two year old Zheng Haos acting as a shy teacher is appropriately restrained.
The changing colours of the seasons, ranging from the warm colours of an autumn dusk, with golden wheat fields and yellow autumn leaves, to the bluish white winters filmed against the wide expanse of sweeping plains and rolling hills are ravishingly captured, and sometimes it looks like a series of paintings. Against this scenic backdrop, a subtle and gentle romance develops between the two of them.
Then one day Changyu is sent away to the city because of some political faux pas that he had committed in the past. The day before he departs he gives Di a colourful hairclip. She cooks him a special meal to take away, but his escort takes him away before he can say goodbye. Running after him, she falls and breaks the earthenware. Worse still, she loses the hairclip, and retraces her steps frantically looking everywhere for it until she eventually finds it.
Zhang Yimou captures Dis love by showing her waiting patiently for Changyus return. On one occasion she even hallucinates that he has returned, only to find an empty schoolhouse. When he does not return for several weeks, she decides to look for him in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. Caught in a blizzard, she is found unconscious, and is slowly nursed back to health. Upon hearing her illness, Changyu returns home without official permission. He is able to see Di, but this transgression results in a separation for a further two years before they could get married. He never leaves her again during the forty years of their marriage.
The scene then flashes forward to the present shown in black and white. The final part is intensely moving, and is heightened by SanBaos music featuring a melancholic solo flute.
The film works because we care for the characters, and we want their love to succeed. The device of using black and white to depict a harsh present day, framing a romantic past captured in colour, is particularly effective. Although politics affected the lives of the couple, it is kept very much in the background and not dwelt upon. The focus is on the love story. There is no physical contact and no kissing, and in this regard it is very Asian. However the story is imbued with breathtaking beauty and profound sadness, and is very powerful emotionally.
The Road Home won several awards in Berlin (2000), the Sundance Film Festival (2001), and Chicago (2002). The film is available on DVD.