Director Zhang Yimou started his film career as a cinematographer and that experience shows in the films he has directed, including such visually stunning works as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. More recently, Not One Less earned the admiration of many for the skill of its storytelling and the wisdom of its insight. The Road Home continues Zhang’s extraordinary record of accomplishment, telling a simple story that is grounded in a universal humanity and telling it with superb visual artistry.
Bao Shi’s screenplay, based on his novel, Remembrance, begins with Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returning from the city to the mountain village where he grew up. His father has died; his aged mother, Zhao Di (ZhaoYuelin), is stubbornly insisting that the coffin carrying her late husband be carried from the health center back to their town by pallbearers on foot–"so he won’t forget the way home," she explains.
From this initial segment of the film (in black-and-white and in the midst of a blizzard), Yusheng relates in flashback the story of his parents’ courtship, depicted in the center segment in brilliant color. His father, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), came to the town forty years before to be the teacher in the village school. His mother, a young peasant girl, living with her blind, widowed mother, broke with custom in falling in love with the teacher. Arranged marriages were still the rule; romantic love ran counter to that custom and their different caste/class status was yet another impediment to the match.
But Zhao Di, played as a girl by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)is smitten. As the school is being built, she joins other women of the town in providing lunch to the workers, hoping that the Changyu would choose the bowl of food she brought, on which she had lavished special care. She runs about the countryside, seeking a glimpse of him walking with his students and exchanging glances with him–the gentlest flirtation. When it is her family’s turn to host the teacher for dinner, the real connection is made. But Changyu is suddenly called back to the city and Zhao is disconsolate. It is over two years before they are reunited, not to be separated again until Changyu’s sudden death.
While focusing closely on the love story, Zhang is commenting on a way of life–rural, community-based, tradition-directed–contrasted by implication with Yusheng’s city ways. Yusheng has been away for some time; as he relates his parents’ history, his mother’s demands for his father’s remains seem more and more reasonable–both to him and to us. It’s not only about enduring love and loyalty, it’s about custom and family and clan and change. The old skills–weaving at a loom, repairing broken pottery–are passing and so, too, are ways of life changing. Without belaboring his point, Zhang suggests that much of value will be lost.
Zhang sets his story in the beauty of the geographical setting, the seasons changing in counterpoint with the development of the narrative. The mountain valley at dusk with fields of grain waving in a gentle wind become a painterly abstraction. Young and radiant Zhao in her red jacket running through the shimmery, golden landscape or through the cool blue-green-white palette of a birch forest–with exquisite deliberation Zhang composes each frame and the frame-to-frame movement and continuity with impeccable mastery. There are subtle moments of slow motion, an occasional jump-cut, an occasional repetition. He lavishes the camera on Zhang Ziyi’s beautiful face, repeatedly bringing it in to closeup on the wide Cinemascope screen, reveling in the transparency and directness of her performance.
Zhang’s visual and dramatic poetry are enhanced by a lush soundtrack, used judiciously. More important than the music, though, is the sound of the school children reciting their lessons which is heard repeatedly through the film. The education of the next generation is important to this town; they work hard to build and sustain their school, to support their teacher. What the children chant is what they are learning and will carry forward to the next generation.