Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Road Home (Zhang, 1999)

The two young people in a small Chinese village barely speak to each other throughout the entire film and yet director Zhang Yimou is able to offer us in shorthand the power of a union that lasted a lifetime. Here is a story that conveys its central message of love, honor and respect with an extraordinary amount of economy. Although The Road Home spans several decades, it is not epic in scope. There is only one setting really, as we never leave the small mountain village – two if you want to count the long dirt road than winds its way into the horizon and makes the city seem so hopelessly distant. Zhang also focuses on just two moments in time. The first is the tentative courtship of a shy young girl who lives with her blind mother and a teacher from the city whose voice may as well be a siren song. The second – occurring shortly after the teacher’s death some decades later - serves as the bookend for the film’s beginning and ending.

We enter the film through the character of a young man who is the son of the teacher and the young girl who has grown into an old woman. He has returned to the small village from the city in order to assist with funeral arrangements, particularly an unusual request made by his mother. She wants to have her husband’s coffin carried along the long road leading to the village so that he will never forget how to return home. Initially, this may seem like a silly superstition, the loopy demands of a grieving widow. Indeed, it is not a task easily accomplished. All of the young people are out of town and all there is left to do the heavy lifting is a handful of elderly men. However, to understand the significance of this gesture, we are taken back to the moment when the teacher from the big city first caught the attention of the young village girl.

The tale of his father and mother first meeting is told through the mind of their son. As it is being passed on without first-hand knowledge of what occurred, the story rightfully takes on the feeling of legend. The details are sparse, and his father has an effortless magnetism that sends his mother into a dreamlike trance. Little moments of humor and sorrow are told simply but passionately, as if they have been rehearsed and improved over the course of a generation. Even the colors are extra-vibrant, contrasting sharply with the dreary palate that Zhang uses for the scenes that take place in the present day. The attraction between these two people is common – it happens all over the world every day – but to the son who resulted from their union, these fragments of information from before he was born may as well be treasured artifacts. It is not a story of high drama (although there is some unspecified political trouble that we never fully understand); yet, because of the context and the care with which the memories are conveyed, the emotional impact is overwhelming. It is not necessarily the events that occur which draw out our tears, but rather the way in which the son comes to honor the people who gave him life.

Naturally, in the flashback, we come to learn more about the central metaphor that serves as the film’s title and also about its significance to the protagonist’s grieving mother. However, Zhang never pushes his sentiment too forcefully and is successful in finding moments of joy and tension in places that we may not expect – a broken bowl, a lost hair clip, recitations from a teacher’s lesson book. With its G-rating, The Road Home may very well be to Zhang Yimou what The Straight Story (released in the same year) is to David Lynch – a pure, affecting dose of unsophistication that embraces the importance of family and recognizes that life is paradoxically a long, arduous journey that takes place in what can seem like an instant.



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