Mainland Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is well-known in the U.S. for such films as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju” as well as the controversy some of his work has inspired in his homeland. His latest film “The Road Home” is a smaller scale work that has become better known for one thing: it features the debut of Zhang Ziyi, the young, breakout star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. As a matter of fact, it was Yimou who had recommended the young actress to “Crouching Tiger” director Ang Lee.
The story takes place in the North Chinese village of Sanhetun. The town appears to be dying, as many of the young people have left to seek their fortunes in the city. Among those who have fled is businessman Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei). However, upon hearing news of his father’s death, Yusheng rushes back to the side of his distraught mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin).
Unfortunately, the mourning process isn’t going to be that easy. Yusheng’s father, Luo Changyu, as the village schoolteacher, was a highly honored man. Zhao Di wants him to be honored accordingly, in an age-old local custom that hasn’t been used since before the Cultural Revolution. This tradition involves carrying Changyu’s coffin from the hospital back to the village in the middle of the winter, ON FOOT. There’re not even enough young men left in the village for the task. The necessary manpower would have to be hired from the next village to cover the whole journey. Yikes.
When Zhao Di refuses to budge on the plan, Yusheng reflects upon the movie’s real story, of how his mother and father had first come together. It began around 1958, prior to the debacle of the Cultural Revolution. 18-year-old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi), though illiterate, was by far the prettiest girl in the village. Then the village’s first (and apparently last) schoolteacher arrives, 20-year-old Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao). The two begin to fall in love, then Communist Party officials call Changyu back to the city. Zhao Di falls ill, yada, yada, yada…they obviously end up together then back in the present Yusheng has to figure out how to pull off this funeral.
While Ziyi and the movie are both quite beautiful, they’re both a little undercooked. For a film that clocks in under 90 minutes, this one feels awfully padded. There’re way too many shots of the young lovers gazing longingly at each other and way too much voice-over narration explaining what exactly is supposed to be going on. I’m not saying I needed a couple of gun battles here; just that the exact same story could have probably been told in about an hour. I don’t know why this film has received so much buzz, but I figure in a couple of years it will be remembered as just a footnote in the careers of both Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi.