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22 March 2006

The Road Home (1999)

Zhang Ziyi (Young Zhao Di), Sun Honglei (Luo Yusheng), Zheng Hao (Luo Changyu), Zhao Yulian (Old Zhao Di)

Directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, and The House of Flying Daggers, The Story of Qiu Ju)

Language: Mandarin Chinese

From IMDB: "Prompted by the death of his father and the grief of his mother, a man recalls the story of how his parents met."

Although ostensibly about the romance between two fictional characters, the majority of which is told in a flashback that returns to late 1950s rural China, this film also serves as an ode of three other sorts. But let me talk, first, about the love story. While beautifully shot, this disarmingly simple tale of an unconventional courtship - in an age still dominated by arranged marriages - and lasting love did not move me to any great sense of emotion. Perhaps my romantic sensibilities were stunted by all of the manual labor that went into Zhao Di's attempt to catch the eye of her village's first full-time teacher. Love, as defined in this time and place, means working very hard.

Zhao Di makes food for the workers constructing the new school house in the hopes that the teacher will eat from her bowl and admire her cooking. She carries water from a distant well in order to pass by the school house more frequently. She weaves through all hours of the night to create the good-luck banner that will adorn the new building. She waits and waits by the side of the road in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the teacher as he walks home. She waits again when he is ordered into the city for questioning during this, the time of the Cultural Revolution. She repairs the school house, cleaning it throughout his long absence and decorating it with beautiful paper cuttings - even though she is illiterate and never learns to read or write. And finally, as an elderly widow, she simply wants to accompany her late husband's body when former students carry his coffin on foot from the hospital in the city back to the village where they lived together. Everything she does - as a girl wishing to be noticed, as a young woman in love, and as a wife throughout a 40-year marriage - is based on respect, toil, and love.

The whole thing made me feel terribly shabby with regard to my own chores! What a wimp I am!

But because of her overwhelming attitude of obligation and, frankly, self-subjugation, I found the actual romance difficult to fathom. I understood on an intellectual level that she was very much enamored with her young man, but my emotions were not engaged by the storytelling. After all, how much could she feel after having never spoken to him, hearing his voice only from a distance as he recited lessons with his students? But maybe in a time of arranged marriage, the thrill of choice was part of the attraction.

Ah, but to the other love stories. First, there was Zhang Yimou's fascination with all things bygone. This film was packed full of tradition and custom, much more so than his other films set in the past. How are porcelain pots repaired? A traveling craftsman constructs custom-made nails that fit like staples over the cracks. This was depicted at length. How is cloth woven? Both Zhang Ziyi and Zhao Yulian (as the elderly Zhao Di) are depicted weaving in an ancient loom that straps behind the back and arches overhead. How was food prepared? How were lessons conducted? What paper crafts were perfected to decorate buildings? Even the unspoken detail was telling, down to the patch Zhao Di wore on the right shoulder of her quilted jackets where she rested the water bucket pole. All of these intricate old skills rendered a picture of a past that no longer exists in mainstream China, and Zhang Yimou's story, here, was as much an ode to numerous lost arts as it was about two individuals falling in love.

While I found the initial half hour of this film a little curious - not realizing the extent to which these other ideas would be explored - I soon realized that the story of their courtship was also the story of their lives as young people, with all of the tasks and values (not moral values, but more akin to aesthetic tastes) that no longer concerned descendents who wore windbreakers and drive Jeeps. To tell their story without this context would have been an injustice to their life's work.

The second love story was that of a child for his parents, perhaps a reflection of Zhang Yimou's own childhood during the Revolution. Although in his 30s and living a busy life in the city, Luo Yusheng takes time away from his obligations to help his mother fulfill her wishes for his father's funeral. He contributes 5,000 Yuan (roughly, by this film's estimation, enough money to pay 50 laborers for a day's work) to help construct a new school. Then, he grants another of his mother's wishes when he teaches for one day in the old school house. She said that his father had wished he would become a teacher too, and that she would be happy to hear echoes of her husband in that old school through her son's voice, just once.

Everything about their relationship was based on obligation, toil, and love, just as had been the case with his parents' courtship. And as a sweet indication of their love, both mother and son repeatedly assured the other one they needn't be troubled, trying to spare each other the burden of worry. Their scenes together were much more emotionally resonant than the tale of romance, and I had to laugh when this old lady advised her son not to be picky when it came to love - this from a woman who had risked everything and put her entire being into her relationship with her husband!

Finally, there was Zhang Yimou's fascination with Zhang Ziyi's face. Like Gong Li before her, Zhang Ziyi has a wide-eyed beauty and frank innocence - youthful but mature, naive but wise, eager, self-assured and very determined without being overt or pushy. She is strong. Zhang Yimou, after breaking up with Gong Li in the mid-1990s during the filming of Shanghai Triad, struggled to find his artistic voice - his muse. In Zhang Ziyi, he seemed to discover an heir to the powerful, vulnerable female characters Gong Li brought to life. He allowed the camera to linger to a distracting degree on Zhang Ziyi's face, and as a result, the majority of the emotional dialogue was spoken there in her features, without words.

And as a little indication as to the immense global popularity Titanic, the elderly Zhao Di's house contained two posters for the film - with no other store-bought decorations. Even out in middle-of-nowhere China, Leo was King of the World.

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