Movie Review: “The Road Home”

The Road HomeThe 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.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Strictly Ballroom”

“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

strictly ballroom“Strictly Ballroom” is a 1992 film by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.  It begins at the conclusion of a local dance competition in which young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) effectively dances himself out of contention by trying out his own new dance moves, a pathway to certain defeat in the hidebound world of ballroom dance.  The competition lost, his partner Liz (Liz Holt) refuses to continue to dance with him and takes up with veteran Ken Railings (John Hannan) instead, leaving Scott without a partner for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship.

The characters in these early scenes have a frightening, cartoonish aspect.  The men all have florid, sweaty faces and bad toupees, and the women wear their hair in impossible spikes.  Into this surreal arena enters the simple, unadorned Fran, winningly acted by Tara Morice, who reminded me of both Andie McDowell and Nia Vardalos.  Fran is a novice dancer and a textbook ugly duckling, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a space between her front teeth.  She tells a dubious Scott, “I want to dance with you, your way”, and persuades him to give her an hour to show what she can do.

That first hour together is magical.  Fran has far more talent and aptitude than Scott anticipated, and she brings out a sensitive, caring side in him that we hadn’t seen before.  They dance beautifully together, yet Scott insists that the tryouts being conducted by his mother (Pat Thompson) to find a new partner for him will go forward as planned.

“Strictly Ballroom” tells the story of how these two are forced to confront his dysfunctional family, as well as the seamy underbelly of competitive dance, and how they grow both as individuals and as a couple in the process.  While the basic storyline is unassuming, the costuming is a feast for the eye, and the soundtrack is delightful from beginning to end, and includes “Time After Time”, “Love is in the Air”, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as sung by the inimitable Doris Day.

The sum total of all these parts is that rarest, most elusive of all cinematic achievements: romance.  Not since Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” have I seen a more romantic movie, and I think it is significant that both of them were made outside the U.S., far removed from Hollywood’s pernicious influence.

I recommend “Strictly Ballroom” for everyone, whether you’re looking for a movie for your family, a date with your main squeeze, or a night out with friends.  Even if you feel doubtful going in, you’ll feel happy on your way out.

Derrick Robinson