Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei, Zhao Yuelin, Zheng Hao
Written by: Bao Shi, based on his own novel, "Remembrance"
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: G
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 89
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

The Road Home (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Great Walk of China

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year the celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou departed from his opulent, colorful palate for a wonderfully dusty, stripped-down tale called Not One Less, about a young girl placed in charge of a rural school full of little kids. To the initiated, it resembled some of the great neo-realist Iranian films of late, and the talented Zhang (one of the very few foreign directors who receives regular distribution in the States) really pulled it off well.

Of course, those of us who saw Not One Less wondered what happened to Zhang's regular leading lady, Gong Li, who starred in most of Zhang's most celebrated works like Ju Dou (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), and The Story of Qiu Ju (1993). Though Li is still not around in Zhang's latest film, he seems to have become mesmerized by a new face, that of Zhang Ziyi, the young star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And for her he returns to his usual clean, colorful style.

Oddly enough, though, the story begins in black-and-white (obviously shot on color stock -- it has the same brown-gray look that the recent Eureka had). In the present day, a successful city dweller (Sun Honglei) returns to his small-town home when his father dies. Unfortunately, the father has died out of town and the mother (Zhao Yuelin) refuses to let his body be transported back by car. He must be carried by men on foot so that, in the afterlife, he can remember his way home.

Just as we're preparing for this interesting premise, a black-and-white story about a walking funeral procession, the film suddenly shifts to a full-color flashback telling the story about how the dead man and his wife got together. And though it's an abrupt change, Zhang handles it beautifully, and we're soon swept away by this second story.

The young man, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), a schoolteacher, gets appointed to a small rural schoolhouse. The whole town becomes fascinated with the stranger, especially Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi), who goes out of her way to pass by the schoolhouse each day to listen to his lectures. Their little romance becomes complicated not only by their society's built-in arranged marriage agenda, but also when Luo gets called away to the big city, under investigation for some unknown offense. Zhao waits breathlessly, painfully for him each day to return.

To Mr. Zhang's credit, the story doesn't bog itself down with the details of Luo's problems, or the melodramatic device of an arranged marriage threatening the couple's true love. It focuses completely on Zhao, which allows Mr. Zhang's camera to spend long, rapturous minutes gazing at her amazing face. She makes meals for Luo and we watch her as she watches him eat, full of joy and anticipation, feeling the connection of having created the food that nourishes him.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one face, but Ms. Zhang is up to the task. When Ang Lee had such great faces as Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat to gaze upon in Crouching Tiger, he instead chose to follow young Zhang for excruciatingly long periods of time, and his gamble somehow paid off. The Road Home doesn't have such a hard choice to make, and the gamble has already been won. Zhang Ziyi has the stuff to be a big star.

Though director Zhang gets carried away at points and lets clunky melodrama taint his film (such as shots of Zhao as an old woman superimposed over shots of young Zhao), the overall effect is one of breezy romanticism. We get completely enchanted and carried away by the purity and beauty of this love story, and I confess to having emerged from the cinema feeling quite refreshed.

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