The Road Home (1999)

Not so long ago I was griping about how the Chinese films by the so-called Fifth Generation of directors all exhibit the same kind of fatalism about the misery that the country has suffered over the course of the twentieth century. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that in The Road Home, Zhang Yimou has made an entirely different kind of film instead. Most of it takes place during approximately the same time period as the earlier films and political events like Anti-Rightist Movement hangs like a specter in the background but the focus here is completely different.

In the present day, a worker in the city returns to his home village after an absence of some years upon hearing the news that his father has passed away. His father arrived in the village some 40 years to work as a teacher while his mother is a local girl. The story then flashes back to their youths. It is clear that the girl Zhao Di has fallen in love with the young man from the city at first sight and does everything that she can to get his attention. A lot of the charm of this film is its portrayal of the local traditions. As the prettiest girl in the village Zhao Di is asked to weave a red banner that will hang in the newly constructed schoolhouse for luck. While the men labor to build the school, the women are required to stay away and cook meals that are shared out among the men. Naturally her interest is returned and the film turns out to be entirely about their courtship, which is as sweet as any die-hard romantic could ask for.

I knew that this film was notable for being the cinematic debut of Zhang Ziyi but I neither expected that it would be completely centered around her nor that this was a romantic film through and through. The director even goes to the extent of filming the present day scenes in black and white and the flashback scenes in color to accentuate her beauty and youth. The actress plays it up for all it’s worth too, strutting about with a gait that deliberately sets her twin pigtails swinging. Thankfully she has both the looks and the charisma to pull it off and it can’t be denied that the scenes are very sweet. Even though there are the usual troubles that keep the couple apart and we already know from the present day scenes of the death of the narrator’s father, the overall tone is upbeat and positive and I quite enjoyed the change in style.

Still this is a film without much substance and pretty as Zhang Ziyi, she isn’t remotely convincing as a peasant girl whose daily routine involves fetching water from the village well. Watching this really makes one appreciate the casting of someone like Gong Li who is attractive enough and yet still looks like she could belong in the countryside. A more biting criticism is that the film is so blatantly a vehicle for her that the male lead Zheng Hao is given barely any attention. Obviously he’s a much less charismatic and interesting performer, but this has the effect of making it seem like it’s a one-sided affair and that Zhao Di’s romantic notions exist entirely in her own head. I think all the best romances require an actual relationship with plenty of interaction between the two leads so The Road Home disqualifies itself.

On balance, I quite enjoyed this for its portrayal of rural life that while sometimes difficult is filled with plenty of joy. I even liked that the film draws a sharp line between the urbanized China of the present day and the rural life of the narrator’s mother. At the same time after reviewing Zhang Yimou’s filmography it seems that this is around the time he starts tilting towards a more commercial form of film-making that is less concerned about having something of substance to say than saying it in a beautiful way.

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