Sunday, May 15, 2016

China Institute Film Course: The Road Home

It is the sort of tradition that has not been practiced since the Cultural Revolution, but Zhao Di is dead set on conveying her husband Luo Changyu’s body back to their village in an old fashioned, pallbearing procession. She and Luo must have had a rough go of it during Mao’s 1960’s insanity, but it was the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s that nearly derailed their gentle courtship. The couple’s grown son tells their story in Zhang Yimou’s contemporary classic The Road Home (trailer here), which is the subject of this week’s Chinese Film Short Course lecture at the China Institute in New York.

Luo Yusheng rarely returns to his parents’ snowy provincial village. He studied to become a teacher like his father, but found success in business instead. When his father arrived to become the village’s first teacher, it was a big deal, but first he had to preside over the construction of the one room school house. Zhao would lovingly prepare her share of the meals for the construction team, never knowing if Luo would be the one to eat them.

Of course, she had caught his eye as well. He was also duly impressed by the quality of the ceremonial Lucky Red Banner she weaved for the school’s central beam. Yet, they only started to understand the reciprocity of their feelings on the night Zhao and her grandmother finally had their turn hosting Luo for dinner. Sadly, Luo would be summoned back to the city the next day to answer some “political questions.” Viewers should know better than young Zhao the broad strokes of what that was to entail.

Road Home is a G-rated romance (literally, per the MPAA), interrupted by episodes of ideologically driven violence that would be R-rated or worse if they happened on camera. It is a deceptively simple story that expresses deep feelings, while functioning as an intimate microcosm of Twentieth Century Chinese history. Indeed, it makes a perfect companion film to Zhang’s thematically related but even more tragic Coming Home.

By all aesthetic standards, Road Home should be considered an understated artistic triumph, but it is also significant as the cinematic debuts of both Zhang Ziyi and Sun Honglei. The teenaged Zhang looks arrestingly youthful and innocent, but she also has the goods, anchoring the film with the forcefulness of her ardor and yearning. Zheng Hao is also quite effective, considering most of his work is done through glances exchanged across open fields. However, like Zhang, you can tell Sun Honglei has the spark of something in his scenes as the urbanized son.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Road Home’s flashback scenes are in color, while the framing sequences are in black-and-white. However, it rather makes sense given the importance of a certain red dress Zhao wears at key moments. Both Zhang Ziyi and cinematography Yong Hou do it justice. This is a great film that should provide plenty for the China Institute’s lecturer to discuss, but the core human drama will be accessible to any viewer. Highly recommended, The Road Home is currently available on iTunes and will be the lecture topic at the Institute this Wednesday (5/18).