The Road Home

The Road Home
Starring Zhang Zyi, Sun Honglei, Zheng Hao, and Zhao Yuelin. Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Rated 4.0 The Road Home, a radiant import from China, sounds like a simple enough proposition: A man from the city comes back to the countryside for his father’s funeral. While the details are getting sorted out, he tells us the story of how his mother, a peasant girl, came to marry his father, when the latter was first getting established as the village’s school teacher.

What makes this little tale wonderful, as well as not so simple, is a matter of several things—the mother insists on a traditional burial journey in an age when even the remote villages have turned to newer customs, and the urban-dwelling son keeps finding himself drawn into the old ways, often to his own surprise. And director Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, The Story of Qiu Ju, Shanghai Triad, Raise the Red Lantern, etc.) further enrichens and complicates these situations by filming the present-tense funeral preparations in muted black and white and the lengthy and moving flashback account of the parents’ courtship in vivid color.

While the lyrical colors of the courtship flashback give it a quality of legend and myth and poetic retrospect, the modest folktale romanticism of this segment (which dominates the middle of the film) is chastened by the black-and-white sequences that frame it on both ends. The daunting grayness of the present and the rapturous colors of the remembered past become artful partners in a movie vision that is persuasive in its honesty and its nostalgia alike.

As such, The Road Home is both an unusually effective love story and an illusion-free tribute to seemingly lost traditions. Its rewards include the exquisite landscape photography of cinematographer Hou Yong and a beautifully concentrated performance by Zhang Zyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in the role of the wife-to-be in the courtship flashback.

The Road Home was shot a year before Crouching Tiger, and it is Zhang’s feature-film debut. Her role here is much less athletic than in the later film but no less strong. She can embody more than one kind of legendary heroine, it seems, and it’s no surprise to hear that her performance here won China’s "Hundred Flowers" award for Best Actress.