“The Road Home” - Zhang Yimou (1999)

Although deceptively simple, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (Wo de Fùqin Muqin –  literally: My Father and Mother, 1999) is one of the great filmmaker’s outstanding works. Zhang, who has worked successfully in a variety of cinema styles and genres, including social dramas, comedies, film noir, and Chinese wuxia martial arts, here seems to have just crafted a simple love story.  But across all the wide spectrum of Zhang’s work, he has always retained a certain common signature focus on an individual’s heartfelt struggles for authentic engagement.  As I remarked when once comparing Zhang to the equally great Michelangelo Antonioni,
“although the films of both of them [Antonioni and Zhang] may touch on the social sphere somewhat, they ultimately reach a more profound level that suggests the universal struggles of the individual soul in a heartless and uncaring cosmos.” [1]
And this is an underlying theme of The Road Home, too. 

The time of production (1999) seems to have been a particularly fertile period for Zhang.  The Road Home was the second of three relatively lighthearted films – the others being Not One Less (1999) and Happy Times (2000) – that he made in quick succession at this time, all in collaboration with cinematographer Yong Hou and music composer San Bao.  Coming after his breakup with favored actress Gong Li, these films featured new performers, and The Road Home was notable for introducing 20-year-old actress Zhang Ziyi in her first starring role.  All three films, concerned as they were with the lives or ordinary people, were, to my mind, superior to Zhang’s big-budget wuxia extravaganzas that immediately followed, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which were both enormous hits at the box-office.

Zhang’s focus at this time on the lives of ordinary people and his sometimes use of amateur actor’s from the film settings’ locales, has led to comparison’s of his films with the Iranian so-called “neo-realist” renaissance during the 1990s.  In fact Zhang was an admirer of Iranian filmmakers and the way they were able to work under constraining circumstances [2]:
“Look, we think we have it hard here in China, but the pressures of Islamic Orthodoxy in Iran are far worse than anything we have to contend with here. But despite the pressures, Iranian directors succeed in making great films.”
But I wouldn’t characterize Zhang’s’ work as in any way neo-realistic.  His expressive mise-en-scene, including the music, is very carefully crafted to convey deep emotional feelings.  This is what makes The Road Home particularly moving – the naturally expressive cinematic conveyance of a person immersed in love.

The Road Home’s story concerns a young country girl’s falling in love with a new schoolteacher in a remote peasant village back in the 1950s, and it is based on the novel Remembrance by Shi Bao, who also wrote the screenplay.  It is told as a modern-day recollection of events that had happened some forty years earlier. 

In fact the film’s narrative structure is, itself, an interesting element.  The story begins in the “present” time with the schoolteacher’s son learning of his father’s recent death and returning from the city to visit his remote home village and attend to the funeral arrangements and to his grieving mother.  He then begins narrating in voiceover the locally famous story of how his parents met and fell in love.  The account then moves into a dramatized flashback, which makes up the bulk of the film.  Of course these couldn’t be the son’s memories; they could only be the mother’s recollections.  And accordingly the flashback focalization is entirely on the young woman’s experiences.  So what we see must either be a visualization of
  • the woman’s (remembered) experiences and feelings associated with that story or
  • the son’s imagination of the mother’s story that he heard her tell. 
And of course we viewers are, ourselves, imaginatively reconstructing the woman’s feelings based on the emotive visualization presented to us.  Nevertheless and given the son’s evident reserved demeanor, my inclination is to take what is presented in this film as a direct visualization of the woman’s experiences and not so much as the son’s imagined reconstruction of them.

The presentation of The Road Home comprises (a) an outer story set in the present and making up the beginning and closing portions of the film and (b) an inner story set some 40 years in the past and making up the middle portion of the film. The outer story is in matter-of-fact black-and-white and is essentially dry and mournful.  The inner story is in vivid colors (a Zhang Yimou specialty) and is full of vibrant, emotive feelings and expectation.

1.  The Son Comes Home (B/W)
Luo Yusheng (played by Sun Honglei) returns after a long absence to his home town, Sanhetun, in the snow-covered mountains in order to make arrangements for his father’s funeral.  His grieving mother, Zhao Di (played as the old woman by Zhao Yulian) insists that her husband’s burial be carried out in the bygone traditional way: his coffin is to be hand-carried down the long road to Sanhetun, with the pallbearers shouting along the way that this is the road home.  That way his departed soul will not get lost and remember its way home.   This demand presents a serious problem, because there are not enough young people in Sanhetun to serve as pallbearers.

While mulling over this difficulty, Yusheng comes across a 40-year-old picture of his mother and father when they were newlweds, and he lapses into a visual retelling of the famous story of their  falling in love.

2.  Di in Love (Color)
The remembered story, which makes up a little less than one hour of the film, recounts how 18-year-old Zhao Di (played as a young woman by Zhang Ziyi) met the town’s new, 20-year-old schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), in 1958.  This is told in a series of cinematically lyrical passages that convey the growing ardor of Di for Changyu.  Indeed, it is these lyrical vignettes that make up the heart and soul of the film [3].

In Zhang Yimou’s films love is often  blocked by two powerful forces: the coercive control of the authoritarian Communist state and the restrictive constraints of China’s conservative “no touch” indigenous culture.  In this film those two forces are present as well, but they are only in the background on this occasion.  The focus instead is on the two young people’s tentative romantic gestures within that traditional social context.  

This section of the film begins with the exciting arrival of the handsome young man who will be the village’s first schoolteacher.  Following the tradition that the prettiest girl in the village is to weave a banner that will be mounted in the schoolhouse’s ceiling, Di is designated to perform that task.  While the men are busy working on the construction of the new schoolhouse that will be used, the village women prepare their lunches, which are served buffet style.  This occasions the first (V1) of, by my count, six visual vignettes that are featured in this section.  These visual  vignettes are flowing montages featuring multiple slow-dissolves set to music which capture the feelings of the principals involved.  In the case of V1, we see Di carefully preparing her best dishes packed in what she feels is her signature bowl in the hopes that her offerings will be selected by the new teacher, Changyu.

Di also starts fetching her water from the village’s older and more distant from her home water well located near the new schoolhouse just so she can have a chance to catch an occasional glimpse of Changyu.  And even though she is illiterate and not interested in school lessons, she is so enthralled by the teacher’s voice that she stands every day outside the schoolhouse so she can listen to him.  (And she continued doing this over the entire forty-year course of their subsequent marriage.)

Every day after school, Changyu walks some of his students home.  So Di sits along the path, but in hiding, and watches them pass by.  This pattern of hopeful watching is shown in visual vignette #2 (V2).

Since Changyu has no family, the pattern is set up to have each household in the village take turns feeding him his dinner.  Finally it is the turn of Di, who lives at home with just her blind mother, to host him.  This gives Di and Changyu the opportunity to finally go beyond fleeting glances and actually exchange some words.  She invites him for some mushroom dumplings that evening, but  suddenly Changyu is peremptorily summoned back to the city for questioning by the government . Before his departure, though, he gives the infatuated Di a pretty red hair clip.  Changyu promises to stop by before leaving for a quick bite of her dumplings, but he is prevented from doing so and has to depart immediately in a horse-drawn carriage.  Di chases after them with her bowl of dumplings in a mad dash across the meadow (V3).  She eventually stumbles and falls, breaking  her special bowl and sadly discovering that she has somewhere lost her cherished hair clip, too.  She spends days retracing her steps across the meadow in a desperate attempt to find the clip, and eventually she does run on to it.  She also engages a pottery repairman who meticulously employs traditional  techniques to screw the pieces of her shattered bowl back together.  This is shown in an extended sequence of closeups giving the viewer a feel for the old ways of the village (V4). But Di is still morose about Changyu’s absence.

While waiting for the hoped-for return of Changyu, Di goes to the empty schoolhouse and lovingly spends time refurbishing the windows, as well as cleaning and beautifying the schoolroom (V5).  Then she stations herself out on the road in the middle of a snowstorm, desperately waiting for Changyu’s promised return (V6).  The whole village is now aware of her mad love for Changyu.  Di gets a fever from being out so long in the cold, but she stubbornly runs off down the road again anyway, hoping to find her beloved.  She is eventually found fainted along the side of the road and is carried back to the village, where she remains unconscious for two days. 

When Di finally awakens, she is informed that Changyu did manage to break out from custody in the city and sneak back to Sanhetun to see her briefly while she was still asleep.  However, as punishment for his insubordination, Changyu is forcibly returned to the city and kept from joining Di for another two years.  But after this he is finally able to return and marry his beloved.

3.  Changyu’s Funeral (B/W)
The story now returns to the present, and Yusheng, after his (and our) extended contemplation of his parents’ fabled courtship, decides to do whatever he can to fulfill his mother’s wishes for his father’s funeral.  In the event 100 people from miles around come to participate in the traditional transport of Changyu’s coffin and ensuing ceremony.  They want to ensure that the greatly respected teacher’s spirit can remember its road home.

The next day, Yusheng fulfills his mother’s request to teach a class to the village schoolchildren using his father’s original notebook.  Like the old days, Di stands outside the schoolhouse listening to her son’s delivery of the lesson.  This last scene is shot in vivid color, signifying a world reinvigorated by loving passion and commitment.


To most young people their parents are stolid representatives of authority and stability.  They have difficulty imagining how their parents could once have been in the throes of romantic love.  In Yusheng’s case, the famous story of his mother’s waiting for her beloved on the “road home”, which his mother evoked in his mind when she insisted on her “road home” funeral requirements, helped him imagine his mother’s passion.  And these thoughts may have opened up his own heart to the world around him, too.

Although set in a remote and traditional Chinese village, The Road Home evokes universal feelings of how romantic love can bloom in the heart.  In Sanhetun, as in many parts of the world, marriages were all arranged by the parents, and romantic couplings were unheard of.  The shy courtship of Changyu and Di lasted only about a month and did not involve any physical embraces of even touching.  They only exchanged meaningful gazes that struck chords in their hearts.  But love is a universal feeling and indeed an experience that involves the quintessential essence of who we are.  So it can arise anywhere there are pure hearts open to its call.  Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, featuring Zhang Ziyi’s beautiful and astonishingly moving performance as Zhao Di, eloquently reminds us of that.


Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Raise the Red Lantern’ - Zhang Yimou (1991)”, The Film Sufi, (5 November 2009).   
  2. I don’t have a direct source for this quotation, but it was quoted in:
  3. Andrew L. Urban, Louise Keller, David Thomas, “Road Home, The”, Urban Cinefile, (5 October 2017).   

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