Dir. Zhang Yimou
St. Zhang Ziyi, Zheng Haom Sun Honglei, Zhao Yuelin, Li Bin
Winner Grand Prix Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival 2000
Australian Release : 6 July, 2000
Running time: 89 minutes rated PG
Zhang Yimou's last film, Not One Less expressed his concern over the impact of capitalism on socialist China. The entire plot revolved around the conflict of socialist humanism and the selfish priorities of the market economy. Firstly, the young schoolteacher is promised a cash bonus if she manages to keep all her students. But one of her students is forced by his family's poverty to go seek work in the city, where instead he ends up begging and stealing to survive. Worried more about her bonus than her missing student, she struggles to earn enough money to pay her way to the city, where she must bribe other kids to help her search for the missing boy. Everyone in the film thinks of themselves first, demanding some sort of cash reward for their efforts. Not One Less was reportedly the first Zhang Yimou film to please the Government censors. In the west many derided its socialist nostalgia as leaning towards propaganda.
The Road Home shares many of the same concerns Zhang expressed in Not One Less. Once again, he takes a stoic peasant girl as his main protagonist, and valorises the traditional pastoral lifestyle in contrast to the new city-concentrated commercialism of contemporary China. The Road Home expresses Zhang's growing sentimentalism for certain aspects of socialism, specifically an unselfish altruism increasingly rare amongst the current generation of Chinese youth, who are forced to compete with their comrades to get ahead.
The Road Home revisits the era of the Cultural Revolution, and portrays an absolute, sentimental love which may seem unrealistic to western audiences, who tend to be more jaded and cynical, especially when faced with the naïve romanticism and traditional gender roles of Asian cultures. The Road Home unashamedly idealises its 20-year old star Zhang Ziyi as the embodiment of Chinese femininity - desirable, domestic and devoted. But for contemporary Chinese audiences, the film also articulates a current nostalgia for the rural innocence and romance of the past. This nostalgia for a time when life was more simple and relationships were pure and uncomplicated, relates to current problems facing China in its rush to modernise, including the growing divide between the rapidly expanding cities and the correspondingly depopulated and impoverished countryside. The Road Home starts with a son's return to his hometown, to attend to his father's funeral. Upon his return, he finds his mother is determined to observe tradition and carry his father's body home on foot. But the village no longer has enough young men to carry the coffin home in this manner. Changing values are alluded to by the son's long absence from home, the fact that he has been too busy working to experience romance or find a wife, and when he tries to convince his mother that it is too impractical to organise a traditional funeral procession.
The relationship between the son and his mother prefigures the more important relationship between past and present Chinas. The concern with historical development is depicted through a flashback to his parent's romance which dominates the film's structure. The events of the past are portrayed in rich colour and with sweeping camera movements, whilst the present is shot in low contrast black and white, mostly from static viewpoints. The desaturated present is more alienating and less immediate than the past, which in comparison radiates with colour and texture. The present is grim, defined by grief, blizzards and money matters. In contrast the past is infused with the warmth of young love played out with lush cinematography. Whilst the funeral preparations are presented with a bleak documentary detachment, the past is characterised by subjective points of view which position the spectator as a participant in the romance. It is significant that Zhang frames the story in this way, emphasising the dehumanising impact of capitalism on traditional chinese life. But thankfully, The Road Home is less strident than Not One Less in conveying these concerns. By concentrating on the romance of the parents, Zhang's dialectical intentions are sublimated in favour of the intimate story of two people in love, and the profound sense of longing and loss inflicted by social developments beyond their control. The film only falters when the music kicks in - the melodramatic score occasionally overpowering the small events which make up the film.
The Road Home comes across as a more personal film than Not One Less, perhaps because of its simple nostalgia, which draws upon Zhang Yimou's experiences of rural exile and re-education during the cultural revolution. Using mostly non-professional actors, Zhang has created another neo-realist masterpiece, simultaneously documenting past and present periods of great upheaval in Chinese society through the lives and eyes of ordinary people. The Road Home says a lot about today's China via its sentimental restoration of the past. In doing so, it speaks of the sadness of time - the poignant impossibility of holding onto love and loved ones, and the fleeting beauty of youth. The camera's proximity to and interest in the presence of Zhang Ziyi, creates an intimate experience of this sweet melancholy. The camera is repeatedly mesmerised by Ziyi's face, such that it is hard to ignore her likeness to Zhang Yimou's previous protégé and lost-love, Gong Li. The camera lingers on Ziyi, detailing her infatuation with an enamoured gaze of its own. The audience is treated to a cascade of fantastic seasonal images, celebrating the beauty of nature not just scenically, but through the play of seasonal lighting and colours on Ziyi's body, as if wanting to capture every possibility of visually experiencing her physiognomy. The eliding of time through soft dissolves and jumpcuts inspires simple delight in Ziyi's movements as moments in themselves, celebrating her youth and innocence with a visual obsession that signals a desire beyond the diegetic concerns of the movie. It is interesting to note that Zhang Ziyi is being feted as the next Gong Li, at the same time as Gong Li's face begins to show signs of middle-age in Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin, due for Australian release in October. Zhang Yimou's attraction to Gong Li certainly inspired him to make great films with her, and one can conclude from watching The Road Home that he has found a similar vitality in Zhang Ziyi. It will be interesting to see how this influences his future work.
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