Honglei Sun and Ziyi Zhang in Wo de fu qin mu qin (1999)

ROAD HOME, THE (Wo de fu qin mu qin)

(director/writer: Zhang Yimou; screenwriter: based on the book by Bao Shi “Remembrance”; cinematographer: Hou Yong; editor: Zhai Ru; music: San Bao; cast: Zhang Ziyi (young Zhao Di), Sun Honglei (Luo Yusheng), Zheng Hao (Luo Changyu), Zhao Yuelin (elderly Zhao Di), Li Bin (Grandmother), Guifa Chang (Mayor, Old), Wencheng Sung (Mayor, New), Zhang Zhongxi (Potter); Runtime: 89; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999-China)

“A touching love story without a cynical bone in its body.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A touching love story without a cynical bone in its body. It is directed by Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum /Raise the Red Lantern/Not One Less). “The Road Home” shows that love and humanity can overcome the drabness of life. But the film also comes with a stealth political message, that is not fully touched upon but plays a lurking part in the story.

This lyrical work, a model in simplicity and charm, is set in the mountainous region of rural northern China and filmed in a drab black-and-white monochrome for the present and in a glorious color tone when looking back at the Cultural Revolution of the late 1950s — that part was especially attuned to the astonishing colors of the changing seasons. The winter blizzards and snow-covered fields have a stunning white and bluish look to them, making the village seem like a fairy tale one.

An obedient only son, Luo Yusheng (Honglei), of a well-liked village school teacher, leaves the big city to attend his father’s funeral in the rural mountain area of Sanheutun. The son is in his thirties, is a successful businessman, and is unmarried. His elderly mother, Zhang Di (Yuelin), requests a traditional funeral for the husband she still loves with all her heart after forty married years. This custom calls for carrying his coffin by hand on foot all the way from the bottom of the hill where he died in the hospital, to the top of the hill in the village where the remaining elderly residents live to the old school house. The father will be buried by the old well, which brings back fond memories to his mother of how they first met.

In this traditional ceremony, those walking with the body shout out for the deceased not to fear “This is the road home.” This clearly becomes the political message sent, as one looks past this love story as the director is telling us that China must not forget its past truths — that is the “road home.”

The problem with carrying out the traditional funeral and not using a car or a tractor for transportation is that there’s not enough manpower, as most of the young have left the village for the cities.

It’s through the flashback and voiceover provided by Yusheng that we witness the love that inspired his parents, and why he must honor his stubborn mother’s request. The son recalls what his mother told him about how she met his father — how his pretty mother, when she was an 18-year-old (Zhang Ziyi), living with her nearly blind widowed mother (Li Bin), had conspired to meet the kindly handsome 20-year-old new teacher, Changyu, (Zheng Hao), who just arrives from the city of East Gate.

The peasant Di fell in love at first sight with the teacher who was of a higher class than she was. He noticed her among the villagers who was there to greet his arrival because of her bright red jacket. This is a time of arranged marriages, and the sole opportunity she gets to see the teacher is when the school is being built and the women bring lunches to the workers and the women gather around the well. Di volunteers to weave the lucky red banner that is hung from the rafters of the new building, as she knows the teacher will think of her whenever he sees it hanging. She aims to avoid an arranged marriage and instead marry for love.

When the teacher dines in a different village house every day and it’s his turn to go to Di’s house, she can’t hold back her tender feelings and he responds by giving her a hairpin to match her red jacket. This token of love is treated as a precious icon, something she dare not lose.

The novel ways to meet him that she cooks up paves the way for their chaste courtship to continue.

When the teacher is called back to the city by his bosses for some political reasons (Mao’s re-education plan!), he fails to come back when he promised. The anguished Di waits for him by the road in the snow storm and when he fails to appear tries to go to the city to meet him, but faints before she can leave the road (the same cherished road where the funeral procession takes place and where she always stands to get a glimpse of him). When the teacher hears of this, he sneaks back to see her and starts teaching again. But his superiors reprimand him for this infraction and keep him away from the school for two years. But when he returns, this time for good, he never leaves Di again.

These are simple people who live in accord with nature and their traditional customs and their cherished values. They respect humanity above all, even over what the modern conveniences can offer them, and this film is a reminder to modern China to beware of what it is throwing out in favor of its new materialistic society. It’s a call back to the past film, much like some in America tried to look back at nature in the 1960s and headed for the hills to live a simple life. For Zhang Yimou, if you remain grounded in your traditions and beliefs, no one can take away your integrity and the truth you stand for. If the father left the city to be in the country and the son takes the reverse path, they must still live according to their nature. For Yimou nature is the great equalizer no one can overcome (the father’s death is attributed to a blizzard), and the good old days of political persecutions are seemingly for him the moments of truth that shake up those who can’t live as one in the community because they forget what their true nature is.

In this unassuming story, it becomes clear that the message is how out of touch the political bosses can become with the ordinary people who just want to live their lives in harmony with nature. It’s a thoroughly humanistic film, whose political comments are swept into the pristine nature of the countryside and seem naive if thought out to the full extent. A film that shows people who live in oppressed countries have a greater appreciation for the little freedoms in life than those in the industrial western countries who maybe too easily take for granted their freedom (much like Abbas Kiarostami says in his Iranian films, but he is more spiritual than political in his arguments).

Zhang Ziyi(star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) gives a radiant performance and Sun Honglei a pleasing one, which makes this sentimental tearjerker have a true heart even if it’s a bit overblown and manipulative. Though I can’t buy the political message (except for the pokes at the bureaucrats), I thoroughly bought into the timeless love story and the masterly way it was directed. It’s a film without much punch, but its old-fashioned love story never goes out of favor.