'The Road Home' (1999) Movie Review

Updated on October 9, 2017
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Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

On a profound level, the film impresses upon the viewer the vital need to keep close old values and unchanging faith in a moving, increasingly business-driven world—specifically China. It stresses the values of the village in the country as opposed to the complicated city.

The Road Home (1999) Movie Review

Directed by Zhang Yimou, the 1999 Chinese film The Road Home stars Ziyi Zhang (later of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) as Zhao Di, an impressionable country girl who falls in love with a young teacher newly arrived to her village from the city. Though the trouble in the story is not explicitly explained, many have speculated that The Road Home takes place during the political turmoil of the Anti-Rightist Campaign in China, a reaction to the Hundred Flowers Movement. This chaste romantic drama emphasizes the importance of enduring love, sentimental tradition and filial piety. On a profound level, the film impresses upon the viewer the vital need to keep close old values and unchanging faith in a moving, increasingly business-driven world—specifically China. It stresses the values of the village in the country as opposed to the complicated city.

The present, tinted a dreary black and white in stark contrast to the vividly colorful flashbacks, shows middle-aged businessman Luo Yusheng returning to his native village of Sanhetun following his father’s unexpected death. His inconsolable mother insists that the body be carried back from the hospital to the remote village by men on foot, in accordance with an old custom out of practice after Cultural Revolution, so that “his spirit can find the way home.” The village mayor would like to comply, as all those in the area loved Luo Changyu, Zhao Di’s husband, but there is simply not enough manpower, as the young people and men have left for the city. Luo asks his mother to consider transporting his father’s body by truck, but after she adamantly refuses, he begins to remember the story of his parents’ courtship and has a change of heart.

Luo does a voice-over for the simple, even seemingly trite plot: the prettiest girl in the village, Di, loses her heart to the young schoolteacher, and he is similarly smitten with her. Di cooks her best dishes for him, goes to a well further from her house in order to be near the school, and waits by the road for him to cross paths with her. Nothing dissuades her; not the admonitions of her blind mother, who believes Changyu is of a different class and therefore inaccessible, not the custom of the village for couples to have arranged marriages, and not his sudden call back to the city. On the day Changyu is supposed to return, Di waits for hours in the freezing cold and catches a fever. Even in that state she determines to go find him. A villager reports finding her unconscious by the road and she is brought back. During her two-day recuperation, Changyu comes back, having heard of her longing for him, and sits with her. The couple is punished for Changyu’s apparently illegal return by a two year separation from each other. On the day Changyu comes home for good, Di is waiting for him by the road.

The vibrant love of the young Changyu and Di is appropriately colored with brilliancy, while 40 years later, after Changyu’s death, the frames change to a dull and muted gray palette. Red permeates each scene with Di (the story is from her perspective), from the school banner to her coat and the barrette Changyu gives her; because of this, some viewers have read The Road Home as an allegory for the Communist Revolution, but that conclusion is debatable, as the color red carries many connotations for the Chinese people. Most obviously, the symbol denotes her constant love. Cinematographer Hou Yong captures the lovely background (of Di running happily through long green grasses, for example) visuals of the film’s middle section and the grim reality of the beginning, while composer San Bao’s orchestral score accentuates the emotional texture of each affecting moment.

Zhao Yuelin and Sun Honglei act believably as the stubborn, grieving old widow and the practical-minded son initially baffled by his mother’s fixation on an outdated superstition, respectively. Ziyi Zhang performs her cinematic debut with fresh innocence and talent, though at times her face seems to strain in retaining an expression, the purity of Di shines through from the young actress. Zhang Yimou, the orchestrator of the project adapted from Bao Shi’s novel Remembrance, finely constructs The Road Home, slowly building Di’s budding adoration and total devotion to Changyu to heights of happiness and lows of longing. Of particular note is Zhang’s care to frame the story from Di’s innocent and loving point of view, without the political paraphernalia that usually decorates his films (many of which have been banned by the Chinese government for those reasons).

The frequent shallow focus of the camera and close-ups permits the viewer to concentrate only on Di, who throughout the film is usually waiting, watching, wanting, pulling away to do a widescreen long shot interspersed with tracking shots when she runs along the road so that we perceive the its winding length to the village. Even in a crowd with colorful coats worn the villagers to ward off the cold, Di’s red jacket is the most immediately noticeable. Photographic tones range widely, but universally are bright and lively. When the bowl, a symbol of Di’s hopeful love for Changyu, is broken as she tries to intercept him before he leaves for the city, all seems lost; later on, when it is carefully repaired, the viewer can see that the couple will be reunited as well as the pieces of the bowl.

In the end, Changyu’s dream of gathering enough money to build a new schoolhouse is realized. The scene of the long funeral procession, attended by over a hundred former students of Changyu, ironically makes all the initial fuss useless. Luo, in acquiescence to a longtime wish of his father’s, teaches for a day at the old school. The old widow watches in tears, and that moving picture is superimposed by Di and other curious villagers first catching sight of Changyu. The final image, a crane shot of a young Di running down the road to the village, drives deep the significance of having Changyu’s body carried back so that his spirit knows the way home.

5 stars for The Road Home (1999)

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