The Road Home

(Zhang Yimou, China, 1999)


In a welcome and bold initiative near the turn of the 21st century, the Australian distributor Columbia Tristar launched a package of five Asian films as the “Silk Screen” collection. It was especially gratifying at a time when other distributors, once committed to the ideal of arthouse cinema, constantly moaned that audiences “just don't watch subtitled films anymore” – as if to justify their own sins of omission.

Rather than making such lame excuses for a lack of vision, taste and adventurousness, Columbia Tristar attempted to create a new market out of hitherto disparate niches – Asian-Australians, cinephiles, and those with a political or historical interest in the changing face of Asian societies.

Although one would hardly know it from the spread of product at our so-called boutique venues, Asian cinema is among the richest and most vital in the world. In its inaugural year, Silk Screen depended on the familiarity and acclaim that has built up around certain key names: Zhang Yimou, Gong Li, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, Takeshi Kitano.

In 2000, Silk Screen drew more on mainland China and Japan than other key centres of innovative Asian cinema, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. One hopes that, as acceptance for the series grows, we will finally see on our screens the remarkable films of Edward Yang, Fruit Chan, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien … and many others.

Among contemporary Chinese directors, Zhang Yimou has been both blessed and cursed as the one apparently “most accessible” to Western audiences. He has been accused of making lush, bland, internationalist product (such as Shanghai Triad, 1995), and losing touch with his home culture. Not One Less (1999) and The Road Home marked a return to a simpler, somewhat neo-realist style, and a strongly localised subject matter.

Zhang is not a complex filmmaker, and his films make few demands on viewers. Like Not One Less, The Road Home has the clarity and simplicity of a modern folk tale. Again, the need for education is Zhang’s key theme – although, mercifully, without the propagandistic edge that marred his previous effort.

Sentimentality again rules in the telling of this tale – here attached to the obstacles faced by lovers, rather than the sad plight of children without opportunity for self-improvement.

Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns home to a village in North China. His elderly mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), mourns for her recently deceased husband, Luo Changyu, and demands a traditional burial ceremony that requires much manpower and money. Luo is resistant to his mother, until he lets himself meditate upon the love story that brought his parents together.

Now, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Road Home segues from black and white to colour, and from silence to a plaintive musical score. The young Zhao (Zhang Ziyi in her debut screen role) spots Luo (Zheng Hao) in a crowd, and contrives to meet him. Although the film only alludes to political history, the fact that this “individualist” romance breaks the local tradition of arranged marriages is emphasised.

The film's lyricism (reminiscent of the best passages in Red Sorghum [1987]) is very touching. In this village where domestic life seems to comprise little more than food, blankets and bare walls, the tremblings of love and the everyday beauty of nature come to carry an enormous charge of intense feeling.

Zhang gives a poetic charge to simple motifs – a red banner on a wall, or the off-screen sound of children chanting in a classroom. The central road of the title is both a passage that links the lovers, and a hard reality that separates them for long periods.

In fact, The Road Home achieves what so few Hollywood romances can in this day and age – it makes us believe in, and agonise over, the large-scale forces that stand in the way of true love.

MORE Zhang: Raise the Red Lantern

© Adrian Martin July 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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