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[whitespace] 'The Road Home'
Dream Lovers: Zhang Ziyi and Zheng Hao take a shine to each other in 'The Road Home.'

Country Comfort

Nostalgia for the scarcity of the old days,'The Road Home'

By Richard von Busack

AT FIRST, THE BLEAKNESS in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home seems to be preparation for comedy--the aestheticized poverty's a little too extreme. And is it ever aestheticized. The bare hills and bare homes aren't really black and white; the colors should have names, as in a sweater catalog, like "coal" and "snow." An adult son named Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns to the silent village where he grew up because his father has just died. Luo's mother, Zhao (Zhao Yuelin), wishes, in accordance with the custom, that the body of the dead father be carried from where it lies in the nearby city back home, so that his spirit won't get lost. Couldn't they haul the body on a tractor? the son asks. No, it must be on foot, the mother insists, and the body must be told, "This is the road home!" every mile or so.

From there, it seems, we're about to see a laconic comedy on the subject of superstition and its power to bedevil even those who fled to the city to get away from it. Instead, the movie leads us into a full-color flowery romance set in the 1950s. Once, the crone Zhao was a pink-cheeked girl. This youth is played by Zhang Ziyi, the princess-thief who stole the Jade Destiny sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As she is the prettiest girl in the village, it's her traditional task to weave a red good-luck banner for the rafters of the new village school. But it's the city-slicker school teacher she's really interested in. Shyly, Zhao waits for him, hoping he'll notice her.

The romance wends its way through the rest of the movie, against the pretty hills, the sight of which invites the question, "How did the place get so barren in such a short time?" When nostalgia is this prettified, there's always an agenda at work. What turned the country into the silent village we see was the people leaving for the cities. Note how the director lingers over the village handicrafts: an itinerant peddler mending a broken ceramic bowl with metal staples, the holy-Madonna way Zhao looks when she's photographed through the weft of the fabric she's weaving on a rickety loom.

Apparently, some of the Chinese audience is longing for handmade goods just like their crafts-fair-loving American counterparts--can they be as nostalgic for a more frugal past as we are? Maybe this movie is meant to call people back to the healthy countryside. It's becoming harder and harder for Americans to make this kind of movie with a straight face; maybe it's something else we have to import from China. Ultimately, though, the acting can't sell the fantasy. Gong Li, director Yimou's star in Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum, had the conviction for the suffering of love. Actress Zhang Ziyi may be too light and modern a girl to get into it. Maybe it's just that she's more interesting when she's disobedient. Her character's Lassie-like devotion becomes as irksome as the repetitious score.

The Road Home (G; 89 min.), directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Shi Bao, photographed by Yong Hou and starring Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei and Zhao Yuelin, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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