Returning to Earth
There's a quick visual joke that may catch your eye near the beginning of The Road Home, Zhang Yimou's otherwise serious-minded new melodrama. At the film's outset, a middle-aged man has come from the city to his home village in the wintry mountains of northern China to bury his father, a beloved schoolteacher. Upon arrival, he pays a visit to his grieving mother, who has stubbornly demanded that, according to long-abandoned custom, the village men carry his father's body home. And there, in the background, you may notice it: The walls of the old woman's home are plastered with posters of Titanic.
Incidental? Given Zhang's reputation for rigorously composed cinematography, it seems unlikely. Is it perhaps an oblique stab at China's willy-nilly Westernization? The old woman has, after all, probably never seen a movie, much less Hollywood's epic of epics. Or does Zhang intend homage? Though set a world apart from Hollywood (and decidedly un-epic in scale), The Road Home also traffics in historical romance filtered through the rose-tinted glass of memory. (Although, as in most of Zhang's films, the star-crossed lovers here are separated by a foundering ship of state.) Unlike James Cameron's waterlogged opus, however, history is no mere backdrop for Zhang; it is his subject, the idea that haunts his films and gives them their meditative expressiveness. Indeed, when the narrator's late father, seen in a flashback, instructs the village schoolchildren, "Know the past, know the present," he may as well be speaking for the director. To reclaim the former is, in Zhang's humanistic view, to redeem the latter.
In form at least, The Road Home is Zhang's most conventional film in ages. The story, in fact, is almost a reprise of the director's 1988 debut, Red Sorghum: In a long, elliptical flashback, the narrator's mother, Zhao Di (played as a young woman by Zhang Ziyi, the ass-kicking ingenue of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), recalls her courtship. As the village beauty, she is commissioned to weave a red good-luck banner for the rafters of the village's new schoolhouse; meanwhile, she secretly swoons over the recently arrived teacher (Zheng Hao), plying him with dumplings and tagging along behind him as he walks through the countryside. Zhang films these scenes from the perspective of the lovesick girl, in which the teacher is always seen from far off, as an unattainable ideal. In its evocation of youthful infatuation, The Road Home seems an almost Proustian idyll: Whereas the contemporary scenes are shot in drab black and white, the old woman's memories are awash in gossamer sunlight. There's a hint of melancholy in Zhang's use of color as well; the Technicolor flush of first love is bound to fade, replaced by those tattered Hollywood fantasies.
As for Zhang himself, he seems to have found a new Odette. Throughout The Road Home, he lets his camera linger respectfully on Zhang Ziyi's face, reflecting every flutter of emotion in the young actress's melting eyes. Like Gong Li, who energized so many of Zhang's early films, Zhang Ziyi serves as a sort of muse (and, if rumors are to be believed, she is also the director's latest offscreen leading lady). She may not have Gong's matinee-idol presence--an imperious intelligence that could elevate even a relatively forgettable film like the gangster potboiler Shanghai Triad. But she fits Zhang's current elegiac mood: Where, in period melodramas like Raise the Red Lantern, Gong played a modern woman chafing against oppressive tradition, Zhang Ziyi seems to embody a classical ideal of femininity. She, like The Road Home, exists in the past perfect tense--a rush of delicate beauty, preserved by memory.
Indeed, The Road Home often feels like an elegy--not only for the narrator's parents, but for a simpler, saner time in China's past. It seems significant that, where Red Sorghum began with a wedding procession, Zhang's latest is organized around a funeral; the film is an implicit lament for a traditional Chinese culture that honors the past before burying it. In one telling scene, Zhao Di cleans the village schoolhouse after the teacher has been taken away for questioning by agents of the Cultural Revolution. Though illiterate, she carefully preserves the ideograms on the chalkboard: They represent her hope for a happier future.
It's perhaps no surprise that Zhang, who lost a decade of his life after being sent down for "reeducation" at Xianyan's Number 8 Textile Factory, would hold scholarship in such high regard. As in his last film, the Kiarostami-influenced Not One Less, which satirized China's archaic rural school system via a blank-faced teenage teacher's self-interested quest to save a wayward pupil from capitalist exploitation in the city, Zhang here posits education as a counterbalance to the destructive weight of history. In Not One Less, China's kamikaze materialism was the enemy. (The lost student, upon being asked for his impression of the "beautiful and prosperous" city by a television news crew, reminds them that he had to beg for food.) In The Road Home, the Cultural Revolution is the disruptive force. (Mao once boasted that he had buried more scholars than the Qin emperor entombed with X'ian's terracotta warriors.) For Zhang, though, the lesson is the same: Erase the past, and we lose our way in the present.
There's a fascinating symmetry here with Yellow Earth, the 1985 film that launched the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers and marked the end of the Cultural Revolution's 20-year ellipsis. That film--on which Zhang served as cinematographer for fellow Beijing Film Academy graduate Chen Kaige--was also about recapturing the past: Its soldier-protagonist is dispatched to the bleached hinterlands of Shaanxi province to collect lost folk songs. Yellow Earth set the timbre for much of the Fifth Generation's work. Theirs was a cinema of ambivalence, eying modern China as warily as Yellow Earth's villagers studied the soldier in their midst.
Yet if the Fifth Generation has increasingly turned from their social-realist origins to broader historical melodrama, Zhang has resolutely stayed the course. Indeed, by the bittersweet end of The Road Home, Zhang seems almost to complete the journey begun in Yellow Earth. Here, memory recaptures what history has lost.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.