The Road Home Movie Review
After her outstandingly multifaceted performance as the beautiful, stealthy young girl-warrior in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Zhang Ziyi took a role at the opposite end of the girl power spectrum in "The Road Home."
She stars as an idyllic rural teenager in 1950s China who falls in love with her remote village's new schoolteacher, a young man barely her senior with a broad, earnest smile that just lights her up inside.
You can tell he lights her up because Zhang's delicate, eager, ingenuous, resilient performance makes the audience feel so close to her it's like we're the butterflies in her stomach. There are so many levels of emotion, truth, and devotion in Zhang's eyes throughout this movie that she single-handedly makes it unabashedly and deeply romantic -- even though there's not a single kiss, not even an embrace, in the entire picture. In fact, the film's lovers spend less than 3 minutes of screen time face-to-face.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. "The Road Home" is the story of this great love as told, through the movie's present-day bookends, by Zhang's adult son (Sun Honglei) who has returned to the village from the city to help bury his father. In an interesting juxtaposition, these modern scenes are shot by director Zhang Yimou ("Not One Less") in black-and-white, which gives way to rich and resounding color when the son starts in on the dulcet and transporting tale of his parents' courtship.
From the moment Lou Changyu (Zheng Hao) arrives in the village, fresh from teacher's college, Zhao Di (Zhang) is smitten and begins going out of her way to be near him. Their culture dictates a fairly formal decorum, but Di is so bursting with the girlish, wide-eyed joy of first love that she can hardly contain herself.
She begins waiting, almost hiding, near the road from the school every afternoon to watch the teacher walk home, building up the courage to venture down to the road to meet him in passing some day. Soon she is fetching water from the well adjacent to the school, even though a newer well is much closer to her house, where she spends her days looking after her blind mother. She makes a habit of pausing by the school a while, just to listen to Changyu's voice as he teaches the children. (The son notes in voice-over that this became his mother's ritual for 50 years.)
Changyu is smitten too, with this comely, shy girl he keeps seeing nearby wherever he goes. He knows eventually they will meet because in this poor community that couldn't afford much of a salary it is the duty of each family in town to take turns hosting the teacher for meals.
The day he dines with Di and her mother, however, Changyu is recalled to the city by the government, apparently to answer questions about his politics (the Cultural Revolution is in full swing in less provincial parts of the country). He takes his fleeting moment with this beautiful girl to promise he'll return and to give her a gift: a barrette for her hair.
There's no real suspense or dread in Chungyu's absence, beyond Di's worked up anxiety waiting for him to return -- and the absolute panic she feels when she loses that barrette running to catch his wagon and say goodbye as he leaves town. This isn't a story of love beset by social commentary. It's not anything more complicated than an enrapturing story of tenderness, longing and unbridled devotion that so successfully allies the audience with its heroine that when she finds the barrette near her own doorstep after days of searching, the same incredible feeling of warm relief that washes over her also washes over everyone in the audience who has grown attached to her.
Zhang Ziyi nurtures and embodies both her character's absolute certainty about love and her sometimes childlike innocence, which occasionally manifests itself as impulsive foolishness. It is a performance unencumbered by contrivance or dramatization. She just becomes this girl, body and soul.
Zheng Hao is effortlessly charming, gentlemanly and sincere as the teacher. Even though he has the tough task of developing the character while being kept at a distance for most of the picture, he leaves no question about Changyu's adoration for Di.
Director Zhang's only misstep worth mentioning is that his blending of the present-day prologue and coda is a bit mechanical. But these scenes do add a whole other layer to the richness and depth of the story by following the son's preparations to transport his father's body home by foot from a hospital in a town miles away. It is an old custom his mother insists on following as one last honor to the man she loved.
"The Road Home" is otherwise a wonderful work of emotional purity and simple visual gracefulness that compliments its fable of true love with the beauty of the golden autumn countryside and winter snowstorms that are almost as beautiful as Zhang Ziyi herself.