The latest film from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, "The Road Home (Wo De Fu Qin Mu Qin)", was actually completed in 1999. Unfortunately, when the 1999 Cannes Film Festival chose to showcase Zhang's "Not One Less (Yi Ge Dou Bu Neng Shao)" but not "The Road Home", Zhang pulled both films from competition. As a result of the controversy and negative publicity surrounding this move, the rollout of "The Road Home" to international markets has essentially been glacial over the past two years. But now, thanks to the popularity of lead actress Zhang Ziyi (Jen of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", and who will also be appearing in "Rush Hour 2"), currently the 'It' girl of Chinese cinema, the simple romance of "The Road Home" is much more marketable. As a result, North American audiences will finally be able to experience this wondrous masterpiece for the first time at the end of May.
The story begins with businessman Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returning to his native village of Sanhetun following the death of his schoolteacher father, Luo Changyu. His father's body lies unclaimed in the hospital morgue of a nearby city, and his mother Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin) insists that he be carried home on foot by the men of the village, as per tradition. Unfortunately, despite Changyu being a revered member of the community, having taught generations of children in the local schoolhouse, the village lacks sufficient manpower for such a procession, since most of the young people have left to work in the cities.
What then follows is an account of how Luo's mother and father met back in 1958, when an 18-year old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) found herself enamored with the town's new schoolteacher, Changyu (Hao Zheng). Determined to get to know Changyu better, Di goes out of her way to cross paths with the handsome teacher, or at least to hear the sound of his voice instructing the town's children. From going out of her way to use the town's old well (which overlooks the school house) to slaving hours on end in the kitchen preparing dumplings for him, it is clear that Di's feelings for Changyu are as genuine as they are unmistakable.
Unfortunately, just as it seems that Di and Changyu are beginning to hit it off, Changyu is recalled to the city as part of a political investigation. In what is probably one of the film's most heart-wrenching moments, Di tries to catch up with Changyu on foot in order to give him some dumplings for the long trip to the city. Unfortunately, she stumbles along the way and the audience shares her crushing heartbreak. Though the one true love of her life may be gone, Di's hope and resolve are not, and she devotes all her energies to being reunited with Changyu. And in the course of recounting this story, it becomes very evident, to both Luo and the audience, why the aged Di feels so strongly about having her late husband carried back on the road home-- a road that played a pivotal role in their love affair.
Supported by the warm cinematography of Yong Hou and San Bao's evocative score (both of whom worked on Zhang Yimou's "Not One Less"), Zhang Yimou has fashioned raw emotion and a simple narrative into a deeply heartfelt masterpiece. Of all the films released so far this year, "The Road Home" is probably the most moving I have ever seen. Though the central romance is rather simple, and told in a decidedly one-sided manner through Di's eyes, Zhang Yimou gives the story an irresistible emotional pull with his lyrical execution of the material, which is based on Shi Bao's novel "Remembrance". Though Di and Changyu share very few scenes together, and exchange even fewer words, the connection between these two people is undeniable. As we witness the blossoming love affair through Di's eyes and her naive yet earnest actions, a series of indelible images eloquently convey Di's unshakable devotion. From her initial furtive glances towards the schoolhouse while fetching water, to her lonely roadside vigil amidst a snowstorm while anxiously awaiting Changyu's return, this is a love story told in its simplest terms, untainted by the blight of cynicism. This momentum carries on through right until the film's final reel, where past and present collide in a poignant yet inspiring upswell of emotion as Changyu is finally brought home and laid to rest in the village.
As the film's lead, Zhang Ziyi brings much enthusiasm and charm to her memorable and well-cast portrayal of the young Di. While most Western audiences equate the young actress with the spirited and sassy Jen of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "The Road Home" will broaden their appreciation to include her dramatic versatility, while reinforcing her unmatched screen presence. Ably supporting her are Sun Honglei, whose reflective and pensive voiceovers are a perfect complement to the film's flashbacks, and Zhao Yuelin as the elder Di, whose love for Changyu still beats strongly.
This film marks an abrupt change of pace for director Zhang Yimou, whose films have typically shied away from such unbridled optimism, preferring instead to explore the darker side of life in China, such as in "Shanghai Triad (Yao A Yao Yao Dao Waipo Giao)" and "To Live (Huozhe)". However, like the experimentation he did with 1997's "Keep Cool (You Hua Hao Hao Shuo)", the veteran director has successfully staked new ground with "The Road Home", which can easily be considered one of the best foreign films of 2001, if not the best. With it simple yet sweet love story, a star-making turn by Zhang Ziyi, and Zhang Yimou's flawless direction, "The Road Home" is a truly unforgettable journey into the human heart.