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
pallbearers 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.
The foremost member of the so-called fifth generation of Chinese directors,
Zhang was born in Xian in 1950 and was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution,
when his schooling was abruptly halted and he was sent off to the provinces to
work. As he labored on a farm and in a mill, without access to books or formal
instruction, he took still photographs on the sly.
In 1978 he applied to enter the Beijing Film Academy and, despite his obvious
talents, was rejected, since, according to the official criteria, he was too old
to be a student. Determined to study film, he appealed this decision repeatedly
and finally turned to the minister of culture himself, arguing that the Cultural
Revolution had caused him to waste 10 years of his life. He was soon admitted to
study cinematography and made his directorial debut in 1987, with Red
Sorghum, after which he went on to make a string of internationally
acclaimed films, most of them costume dramas starring his then-mistress Gong Li,
and many of them banned or suppressed at home.
Informing these pictures was a sensibility that seemed fiercely critical of
certain aspects of Chinese society, though it was always hard for Western viewers
to know just how allegorical Zhang meant for his films to be. Were the cruel,
feudal settings of, say, Ju Dou--about a beautiful young woman sold to a
wealthy, impotent ogre of a dye factory owner--meant to symbolize a cruel,
Communist present, or did Zhang intend for his heroine's oppression at the hands
of her tyrannical husband to stand as testimony to just how far China had come
since the years of concubines and bound feet? When Zhang commented on the dutiful
enslavement of the title character in Ju Dou, he chalked up the slow
nature of her rebellion to "thousands of years of Confucian education"--a remark
that might also imply a critique of contemporary China, still mired in its own
And there was the question of intended audience: Was a film such as Ju
Dou aimed at Chinese minds and hearts or was it designed to win art house
crowds abroad? The English writer Gilbert Adair has commented on the "highly
exportable chinoiserie ... of their [Zhang and his contemporaries'] films ...
[and] the delectable whiff of nostalgico-colonialism they emit." That may sound
harsh, though anyone who has seen a luxuriously stifling spectacle like Raise
the Red Lantern will know what he means.
With The Road Home, however, Zhang changes his tack. The critical edge
has faded away and been replaced by a fawning, almost toothless yearning for the
good old days before the Cultural Revolution. (His criticism of Hollywood is not
stated directly, though in one of the early, present-day scenes, a
Chinese-language poster for Titanic glares incongruously off the wall of a
village hut.) Zhang has explained his new film as a companion piece to his
previous picture, Not One Less, a modest, naturalistically shot parable
made with nonprofessional actors, about a 13-year-old girl left in charge of an
impoverished rural school. Both movies focus on the place of learning in Chinese
society and both belong to what might be called the warm-and-fuzzy period of
Zhang's career, though The Road Home looks backward as it also takes the
present into account.
According to Zhang, this new film is an attempt to examine how "Chinese people
have reacted to 'learning' at two particular moments in our modern history. The
first of these," he goes on, "was several decades ago. For purely political
reasons, learning was cruelly devalued. Intellectuals suffered physical abuse and
were made to 'disappear.' The second of these is today. Everyone now understands
the principle that knowledge equals power, and yet so many of us are
ultra-materialistic and obsessed with money. Learning is once again being
Fair enough. As someone who sacrificed a whole chunk of his life to the
Cultural Revolution, Zhang surely knows what he's talking about. But watching
The Road Home, you may wonder at the rosy, reactionary nature of his
tribute to tradition. There's no skeptical commentary implied here, and Di seems
quite satisfied with her illiterate lot in life. When her man is taken off for
questioning, she scrambles to sweep and scrub his schoolhouse, preparing to
welcome him when he returns. Her relationship to education is one of respectful
subservience. She isn't educated but she honors those, like her husband-to-be,
Zhang clearly sees Di as a pillar of feminine strength and tenacity, a woman
at peace with her place in the kitchen. Once she sets her sights on the
schoolteacher, she knows what she wants, and most of the film centers on her
gently comic attempts to win him for a husband. The flush-cheeked, resilient
peasant woman (or girl) is a recurring figure in Zhang's films, though this
particular incarnation may strike some viewers as more than a touch idealized and
cloying. Even Di's stupidity is romanticized: When the teacher is due to come
back to the village, she waits for hours by the roadside, in the snow, and makes
herself literally lovesick. And as soon as he returns, she blooms back into
The teeth begin to ache, it's all so sugary. Then again, Zhang Ziyi is indeed
radiant, in an almost presexual way. (Her face is what transfixes: The lithe
dancer's body that director Ang Lee used to such stunning effect in Crouching
Tiger is buried underneath her baggy clothes.) If you're willing to buy the
precious outlines of the director's wishful idyll, you should have an easy time
absorbing his G-rated fantasy of his heroine as paragon and wood nymph.