"The Road Home"
One way to tell a story is to keep it simple. A spare approach is one that the Chinese seem to do well with, as opposed to all the density and complexity incorporated into projects by U.S. and English producers like, say, Ivory Merchant. Can you imagine a story by them being told with a little narration here, a little dialogue there, and mostly in expressions and actions?
Yet that's the style of "The Road Home" as a small village in China receives their new grade school teacher, Luo Yusheng (Honglei Sun), a handsome 20-year old from the city. Honored like royalty, he is welcomed by the entire town and viewed in virtual astonishment by the 18 year old acknowledged beauty of the town, Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi). Though he's not yet aware of her existence, she, hopelessly love-struck, sets about to change all that.
She alters her work routes in order to pass the school so that she can listen to the new teacher instructing his class; she waits hours along the road that he'll pass as he walks some of his students home; she spins her best fabric on a loom as a traditional banner for the new school (to be woven by the accredited most beautiful girl); and cooks her best dishes in hopes that they'll be eaten by the teacher during the construction of the new schoolhouse.
In their first encounter along the road, schoolteacher Sun starts to take notice of this adoring girl. When, finally, it's the girl's turn in the village rotation to feed him dinner at her home (where she lives with her blind grandmother (Li Bin), his interest starts to bloom into much stronger feelings. How could it not? If those eyes and lips don't get him, her culinary mastery certainly must (shades of Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman").
But, no sooner than the love becomes mutual does he learn he must return to the city to face some kind of unstated problem of a political nature. One is lead to believe that he might have said or written something injurious to the power structure, a sin for which there is no escape in China during the Cultural Revolution of the fifties.
Finding out how this turns out is a good reason to go see this movie. It is a tale told with a minimum of spoken words and some narration by Luo Changyu recounting his parents' story. Much is purely visual as feelings are conveyed by expressions, in particular those of Zhang Ziyi, who has a face to launch a thousand heartbreaks. You'll remember her from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". This is an unforgettable lady with a destiny in films to make her a star. You virtually "live with" this face as the story unfolds and you're captivated by it.
The story is told in flashback, with black and white conveying the present time (when teacher Luo has just died and his successful businessman son returns to the village to mourn his father and console his mother) and color required for the warmth and evocation of the past. There is no subplot or secondary characters that don't directly affect the main storyline.
The character of the mourning mother is conveyed by her stubborn insistence that her husband's remains be walked the 40 or so miles from the city hospital so that his spirit doesn't forget "The Way Home".
As we said, simplicity itself. You won't be particularly challenged by it; you'll realize it's a fairy tale, but that doesn't mean it won't make a claim on your heart.
Such a storytelling technique, however, does have its pitfalls. As Zhao Di runs up hill and down dale on the slopes surrounding her village, one becomes aware of the repetition and tedium of this device to convey the desire and desperation of her feelings. You get more tired than she, and suspect that Ziyi ran a few marathons in preparation for this role. And, as expressive as she is, you'll realize that the technique has nowhere to go but to remain on her so much that your admiration becomes strained.
Finally, the simplicity of the story is marred by too much music. The power of understatement is almost submerged in composer San Bao's lead hammer approach as he attempts to lead our emotional response to the images onscreen. In this context, it's an unfortunate miscalculation.
By and large, however, there's no question that the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the actress makes this a potent, poetical love story, fulfilling the intentions of author Shi Bao (film based on his novel, "Remembrance") and director, Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern" 1991; "Shanghai Triad", 1995) who here departs from his traditionally more hard edged, suggestive subjects.
Here, too, is a way to make the case that storytelling doesn't demand huge buckets of money. The budget for this film is probably comparable to the catering bill for the average American movie. What it took to feed the crew on "Pearl Harbor" would probably finance three movies like this one.
Running time (no pun intended) is an appropriately spare 90 minutes.
Rated L for Lovely.