Zhang Yimou makes films to encompass the world. The Chinese director of such memorable epics as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live has told most of his stories with the passion and scope befitting his bright colors, lush imagery and grand plots. He made his reputation in big movies with big emotions, both for his characters and his audience.
That’s why it’s so surprising and exciting to see Zhang’s latest effort, The Road Home. It’s a movie in miniature—an elegantly simple love story essentially concerning two characters. It’s a G-rated tale in which the lovers don’t touch, let alone kiss. It focuses on the tiniest details in small lives, and the large emotions these details trigger and represent. In short, it’s many things to which Zhang has never seemed to aspire as a filmmaker.
It’s often exhilarating to see a talented director exposing his less familiar side to the camera (and sometimes unbelievably boring, like Scorsese’s Kundun). But Zhang hasn’t abandoned what makes him great. This tiny love story is every bit as grand in its composition and scope as his best works, and in Zhang Ziyi (the teenage warrior princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) he has an actress as capable of supporting his vision as Gong Li, Zhang’s longtime leading lady.
The story is narrated by Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), who has returned to his childhood home on the death of his father. He tells us of his parents’ courtship and marriage in the 1950s, when his mother, Di (Zhang Ziyi), was a gorgeous but illiterate peasant girl facing an unwanted arranged marriage. A schoolmaster (Zheng Hao) arrives in the village and Di falls head over heels. Their shy, tenuous courtship is interrupted by the political struggles of the time, but the film’s focus remains on Di and her unquenchable, joyously passionate love for this fairly nice but otherwise unremarkable man.
Among Zhang’s previous works, The Road Home is actually closest in spirit to my favorite Zhang film, Ju Do, which also happens to be the most beautiful film of the 1990s, thanks to the one-of-a-kind visual opportunities provided by setting the film in a rural dye mill. That decidedly darker story of a young woman’s rebellion against her vicious husband also is primarily an analysis of will.
While the characters’ methods in those two films are diametrically opposed, both pictures are character studies about women who believe very strongly that one’s fate must be seized, not received. While Gong Li’s character in Ju Dou broke away from her path with violence and a shockingly vengeful frame of mind, Zhang Ziyi’s dogged, painfully earnest pursuit of her man in The Road Home is no less single-minded or remarkable.
The film is mostly set in the winter of rural northern China, and Zhang’s visuals betray his admitted recent fascination with the quiet (some would say deadly dull) dignity and languid pacing of Iranian cinema. Such a slow film might be boring if it weren’t for the continual distractions of Zhang’s uncanny eye for shape, form and color. As in Ju Dou, the film’s visual fabric is held together by actual fabric: It’s difficult to miss the symbolism or the beauty of the ceremonial bright red cloth Di lovingly winds around the schoolmaster’s building.
Through it all, we watch Zhang Ziyi give her second incredibly powerful performance in two years (although The Road Home has been in overseas theaters for two years now). She has the delicate features of a model—or at least a really pretty flight attendant—but her performances are memorable not for her beauty, but for her backbone. There’s a studied intelligence in her eyes that projects frightening determination mixed with soft hope. She keeps her work simple, which is the only way to make this single-minded role work.
The Road Home isn’t perfect. Its annoying soundtrack continually treads over the line into mawkishness, and the fact that it’s all told in flashback doesn’t allow the audience to worry whether our lovers will ever get together.
But these are small matters in the palm of a remarkably tiny love story that transcends the barriers of culture, time and language. Watch it with someone you would like to love even more.
The Road Home (G) HHH1/2 Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei and Zheng Hao.