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'The Road Home': A Colorful Past

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2001


    'The Road Home' Zhang Ziyi and Zheng Hao in "The Road Home." (Sony Pictures Classics)
"The Road Home," a nostalgic paean to China's fading pastoral ways, might easily be taken for an audition tape for Zhang Ziyi, who later went on to play the rebellious princess in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But here, the camera – or is it Zhang Yimou, the man behind it? – is head over heels for this China doll.

Though "Road" starts and ends in the present, most of it takes place in northern China in the 1950s. The story, as wispy as it is wistful, centers on Zhao Di (Zhang), an 18-year-old who sets her cap for Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), a teacher who's come to build a school in the remote village of Sanhetun.

As the men build the modest structure, the women prepare and serve a potluck lunch. Di makes her best dishes, hoping against hope that the schoolteacher will choose her offering from all the rest. Otherwise the women must stay away from the site, lest they bring bad luck. (Ah, the good old days.)

Di tries various ruses to catch Changyu's eye. Along with smoothing her pigtails, she begins drawing water from a well nearer the school. He finally notices her interest and love blossoms, but then he is summoned back to the city and ordered never to return to Sanhetun.

Since everything is seen through Di's eyes, Changyu's political problems can only be imagined. Like the heroine, there's nothing for it but to wonder, wait by the road and watch the landscape change with the passing seasons. There's also the incessant voice-over, a needless and constant distraction from the actors, whose expressive performances tell all.

We know that Di and Changyu get back together because the narrator (Sun Honglei) is the couple's grown son, a businessman who has come back to his home town to see to his father's funeral arrangements. His elderly mother insists that local men bear the casket the many miles from the hospital to the village. Unfortunately, the young men have all moved to the city and the old folks are too weak for the job.

While grappling with the problem, he thinks back on his parents' courtship and comes to understand the depth of her love and the significance of his mother's request. He is also reminded of traditional values, alleged to have been lost with the advent of the modern age and China's obsession with the market economy.

To emphasize the point, director Zhang shot the present in a gritty black-and-white and the past in radiant reds, greens and golds. His mother's stark hovel becomes as warm and inviting as hot tea on a winter's day. Di, in red jacket and pigtails, glows as she fetches well water and hauls the buckets home. Of course, the past always looks better in retrospect, especially to those who have never done without indoor plumbing.

"The Road Home" (89 minutes), in Mandarin with subtitles, is rated G.


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