In the black-and-white introduction to Chinese director Zhang Yimou's award-winning film The Road Home, a citified businessman returns, with down parka and four-wheel drive, to the remote mountain village where he grew up. His father has just died, and he has come back to this rural, snowbound enclave to help prepare for the funeral. Devastated by her loss, his mother, Di, is determined to follow the oldest traditions by having her husband's body carried to his grave from the hospital where he died. Superstition says they must show his soul the path home one last time, so he'll never forget. But the young people have all left the village, and no one remains to haul the coffin. Perhaps they could use a tractor? the son tries to bargain with his mother, who is stubborn and won't hear of compromise. No, she insists, he must be carried--on foot. As the mother weaves a special shroud, the son sets about trying to arrange for pall-bearers from the next town over.
Here he begins to tell the story of his parents' courtship some 40 years before, and the film bleeds into brilliant color. In the flashback that comprises the body of the movie, Di is an illiterate peasant girl who falls in love at first sight with the town's new schoolteacher, Luo, a young man from the city. Although all previous marriages in the village have been arranged, Di is determined to win him over, without help, and sets about tempting him with a whole battery of flattering quilted jackets and homemade mushroom dumplings. Like Di herself, the movie never ventures outside the village, and even when offscreen complication is indicated (Luo is taken off at one point for questioning about some unspecified political matter), the film's perspective remains confined to the heroine's own limited, practical field of understanding.
At first glance, The Road Home (which was adapted by the writer Bao Shi from his novel Remembrance) appears to be a simple movie, little more than a pastoral, sumptuously shot love story whose most notable features are the lovely young actress Zhang Ziyi (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame), who plays Di as a teenager, and the director's bold use of color.
A bright, almost fevered scarlet has been Zhang Yimou's trademark over the years. In films like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Ju Dou, he charged Chairman Mao's pet hue with a whole range of voluptuous meanings. Now he branches out into other, softer shades. Lime green and pale pink, as well as that same vivid crimson, figure centrally in the action and seem, as almost always in Zhang's films, to serve as the primary conveyors of feeling. And in contrast to some of his earlier, more corseted movies, The Road Home shows his efforts to loosen up and get lyrical--the film features a florid soundtrack and endless, adoring shots of Zhang Ziyi running, braids flying, through the open meadows--but he continues to be most comfortable (and capable) expressing himself through his palette.
Watching The Road Home, viewers may be happiest simply to sit back and take in the luscious CinemaScope landscapes. Yet the harder you look--and the more you know about Zhang Yimou's own ideas concerning economics, China, and the movies--the plainer it becomes that he doesn't mean The Road Home to be a mere pretty trifle. For Zhang, the picture is first and foremost a political statement, what he calls "a reaction against ... the logic of the market." Chinese cinema, he says, has been overly influenced by Hollywood, and a film like this one attempts to return native moviemaking to the local traditions of poetic narrative and respect for one's elders, for education, and for the past. The road home of the title, then, is not just a literal dirt path over which the dead man must be carried one last time before he's buried, but the way back to a more basic, premodern sense of what it means to be Chinese.
Putting aside for a minute the deeply retrograde potential built into this sort of nostalgia (and without asking why a sentimental, downright kitschy back-to-basics Chinese gesture has so much more appeal in the West than would its American equivalent), it's worth considering how Zhang's life has led him to make such statements or, for that matter, such a film. …