One Young Girl's Love
Here is a film about a simple love story. It is directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), whose movies often engender controversy within his home of China. However, it's main distinction to U.S. audiences may be the fact that it is the screen debut of Zhang Ziyi, she who flew to fame in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It seems almost certain that its limited release here in the U.S. was meant to capitalize in some small way on the thirst for Zhang Ziyi found emerging in her new American fans. Putting all that aside, though, The Road Home, or, as literally translated from the Chinese title, "My Father and Mother" (both are appropriate titles), is a disarmingly simple movie about love and devotion.
A young man named Luo Yusheng (Honglei Sun) from the modern big city returns to the small village home of his parents. His father, the village's popular schoolteacher, has died far away from the village, his trip ended permanently by a snowstorm. Yusheng is filled in about the details of the tragedy by the village's mayor, who says that Yusheng's mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin) refuses to have the coffin transported into town via vehicle and insists on having it hand-carried back all the way down the road that leads in to the village. When Yusheng goes to see his mother in order to negotiate for an easier means of transporting the coffin, the mother adamantly refuses. While looking around his old house, Yusheng runs into a photo of his father and mother taken right about the time that they first met. This prompts a flashback for the son, recalling what he remembers about the story of their meeting.
What follows is the main story, where young Zhao Di is played by Zhang Ziyi. She lives only with her blind mother (Li Bin) and does most of the household work. Word has come that a new schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Hao Zheng) has decided to come to the village, and the villagers work to build a new schoolhouse wherein he can teach the children. Di is immediately struck by the teacher, a very young man, and is later captivated by the sound of his voice as he dictates lessons in the single-room schoolhouse.
The story is told entirely from the perspective of young Zhao Di, and follows her as she spies on the man she is fascinated with, following him from distances, and anticipating the date when he will have dinner at her house (he has dinner with a different house in the village everyday). We watch her run the gamut of emotions and realize the intensity of her lovestruck state. She is apparently highly infatuated with him, and this infatuation gives way to devotion. It's a sweet and honest portrait of one woman's love, and we realize that, in the beginning, what sounded like a stubborn adherence to tradition is actually an extension of the devotion that we witness in the flashback story.
Zhang Yimou chooses a visual gimmick for this movie that is not unlike The Wizard of Oz, but it works very well. The present is shown in black-and-white and the flashback is shown in color. It contrasts the state of Zhao Di's heart: the b&w scenes are inherently cold, with the greys more resembling muted blues, and made even colder due to its winter setting, while the color scenes are warm, comfortable, and full of possibilities. The mood and metaphor of the flashback are greatly enhanced by the cinematography of Hou Yong and the music of San Bao. Hou's camera gives us wide, natural fields that we wish we could just stand in for an afternoon. San's theme for the movie becomes the emotional linchpin, although its overuse becomes a little obvious at times. The flashbacks do not stay warm as the season changes in correlation with the story: in spring and summer the love blooms and grows, while in fall and winter the love becomes despairing.
Those who have come away from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with memories of Zhang Ziyi being tough, agile, and even, dare I say, bitchy will undoubtedly be in for a pleasant surprise here. A younger Zhang shows her acting potential with her portrayal of a first love so sweet and hopeful it is impossible not to feel every little emotion she is going through just by looking at her face. The scowl so prominent in Crouching Tiger is nowhere in sight here, replaced with a smile that is both innocent and mischievous at the same time. The gracefulness displayed in the martial arts spectacular is not present either; instead, we have the awkward gait of whimsical teenage girl. Zhang Yimou concentrates on showing Zhang Ziyi's face often, and the actress complies beautifully in a situation where most of her acting is done without the use of speech. Anyone looking for a strong performance by her will not be disappointed.
This movie was a touching little pleasure. The story is about as uncomplicated as it can get, and the visuals and the performance of Zhang Ziyi are there for the audience to simply soak-in. I do not find it a particularly ambitious work, and it does take its sweet time in pacing itself. It all fits together very well for a movie that is more a portrait than a narrative. If Zhang Yimou, tired of the controversies that follow his films, was trying to avoid them this time, he must have been pretty happy to have created a film that is far beyond controversy's reach.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 1, 2001
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "G" by MPAA.)