The Road Home is the tenth feature from Zhang Yimou, still the mainland Chinese director best known to international audiences. (His closest competition is Chen Kaige, who made Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon.) His latest film has a couple of things going for it: It represents a synthesis of Zhang's two contrary stylistic tendencies; and it centers on the debut performance of Zhang Ziyi, who subsequently went on to wow audiences everywhere as the headstrong young martial artist Jen in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still, sad to say, the story simply is too slight to sustain the movie.
The Road Home begins with the first part of a black-and-white framing device: Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), an urbanized young man, returns to his rural hometown to bury his father, a schoolteacher who has died suddenly while trying to raise funds to rebuild the abandoned schoolhouse. Yusheng's mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), insists on doing things the traditional way -- having a caravan, on foot, tote the body to its resting place, rather than hiring a car. It's a long journey in snowy midwinter, and most of the region's able-bodied young men, like Yusheng, have long since moved to the city in search of better jobs.
Zhao Di is adamant. And, as Yusheng wonders how to change her mind, he begins to tell the story of his parents' romance. With this flashback, which occupies two-thirds of the film's running time, the movie fades into color, as we see the eighteen-year-old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) first lay eyes on the newly arrived twenty-year-old teacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and immediately fall in love with him.
The Road Home
In Mandarin with English subtitles. Opening at selected theaters.
In this outback region of China, 40 years in the past, "falling in love" is a novel concept; arranged marriages are still the norm. Yet Zhao Di's infatuation is immediately clear to many, though not, at first, to the only person who counts.
Much of the flashback is taken up with Zhao Di contriving to encounter Changyu whenever possible, finally winning his heart in a manner that might seem like stalking if she weren't so damn cute. For the final fifteen minutes, we return to black and white and the framing story to discover how Yusheng manages to honor his father.
Zhang Yimou's early films -- Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern -- were meticulously crafted period pieces whose sumptuous cinematography and production design served as settings for the beauty and talent of Zhang's protégée, Gong Li. Times change: Over the past decade, Zhang has experimented with a new, more impromptu style. In films such as The Story of Qiu Ju, Keep Cool, and Not One Less, Zhang has employed hand-held cameras and a rawer, almost cinéma vérité look.
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The Road Home is a combination of the two modes. On the one hand, the color scenes are full of gorgeous widescreen vistas and make frequent use of "unrealistic" cinematic techniques, such as jump cuts and slow motion. On the other hand, the black-and-white scenes are deliberately muted and drab. And even the color scenes have very little of the opulent, self-conscious production design found in Zhang's earlier work. It is hard to miss the way in which the visual design comments on the contrast between a dim present and a vibrant past. Indeed the dissolves between past and present that end the film suggest a resolution of the tension between these two worlds.
For all Zhang's formidable craft, the central story is so linear and uncomplicated by incident or subplot that the energy begins to flag two-thirds through. Given the simplicity of the story, Zhang leans too heavily on the major elements working in his favor. Composer San Bao's lovely flute theme, with its almost Irish feel, is classic movie magic; but not since La Strada has a single, brief, unembellished melody been repeated so incessantly throughout an entire film.
And, while Zhang Ziyi has immediate appeal and freshness, the film often seems to be about nothing more than this. No matter how radiant her untouched beauty, Zhang Yimou gives us so many repetitive shots of her in slow motion, running after Luo and beaming infectiously at the camera, that we begin to long for anything -- mayhem, pratfalls, cheap cynicism -- to break the tedium.
If one can make it through the main section's seemingly endless swelling romanticism, the ending does deliver an emotional payoff. But the road there is so straight and unvaried that the journey can be wearing.