The Road Home is a 1999 film based on Bao Shi’s novel Remembrance. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, who is better known in the U.S. for his martial arts films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). It was released in China in 1999 as My Father and Mother, and in the U.S. in 2001.
The Road Home tells two stories, both of which take place in the remote Chinese village of Sanhetun. The first concerns the unexpected death of the village schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and the determination of his widow, Zhao Di (Zhao Yulian), to have her husband’s body transported from the provincial hospital where he died back to Sanhetun in the traditional way – by foot – for burial. As the mayor explains to the couple’s son, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), “Your mother doesn’t want to use a car. She wants your father to be carried back. She wants the coffin brought back on foot so your father won’t forget his way home. It’s an old tradition, a superstition.”
It also tells – in flashback – the story of the courtship of Luo Changyu and Zhao Di forty years before, in 1958, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in China. Luo was a new schoolteacher fresh from the city, and Zhao Di – played to perfection by the luminous Zhang Ziyi – was a young woman of eighteen living at home with her mother. The story of their courtship is simple and timeless, and according to their son’s narration, has assumed legendary status in their village.
It is a story that, like much of Zhang Yimou’s work – I am thinking particularly of Not One Less – speaks directly to the heart. Zhang understands as well as anyone that great cinema is not a matter of spectacle and special effects, but of finding and exploring situations in which the audience can identify with the characters. Who among us doesn’t remember being young and in love, and the pain of being parted. There is no spectacle in The Road Home, and no special effects either, just a beautiful Chinese girl with unruly pigtails and piercing black eyes, whose beauty of spirit stands out like her red jacket against a field of gold.
What Zhang Yimou routinely accomplishes with color has never been equaled by other directors. His outdoor shots have the look and feel of landscape paintings. A stand of birch trees in autumn, the wind blowing across a field of grain – one image after another takes my breath away. Has any other director ever given us such a feast for the eye? And not just in outdoor shots! A bucket of water has never looked (or sounded!) so refreshing, nor mushroom dumplings so delectable.
In Chinese with English subtitles, The Road Home is perfectly suitable for family viewing. It occupies a place of honor on my personal short list of favorite films. Like a beloved fairy tale or a story told by your grandfather by the fireside on a winter’s night, it casts a spell that may never be broken.