Viewers impressed by the strong female characters in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” should take a look at the films of the extraordinary Chinese director Zhang Yimou. His heroines may not wield swords, climb walls or lope along tree branches, but they’re among the strongest, most resolute women in all of recent cinema, enduring crushing losses and mistreatment but never giving in. In his earlier pictures, many of which were visually sumptuous and evocative (“Red Sorghum,” “Ju Dou,” “Shanghai Triad”), the striking Gong Li essayed the central roles, often in period dress, but one of her pictures with him, “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992) pointed in a new direction: starkly told, it presented the beautiful actress as a plain, obsessed rural wife who challenged the entire governmental bureaucracy to redress a minor local grievance. Zhang’s more recent films have continued this homelier, more contemporary approach; “Not One Less” (1999) was a visually austere, documentary-style story about a single- minded young teacher who traveled to the city to track down one of her students, and now “The Road Home” is a extraordinarily simple, even naive tale, set in a remote mountain village during the 1950s, about a local girl who falls in love at first sight with the town’s new teacher, and refuses to allow anything–even political intervention–to obstruct their eventual union. (A framing device, set in the present day and narrated by the son who’s returned home after his father’s death, shows her much older but equally obstinate in demanding that her late husband’s funeral be conducted in the traditional fashion, despite the practical difficulties.) It’s a luminously beautiful love story, a masterpiece of lyricism that proves that even that most justifiably derided of genres, the tearjerker, can be lifted to transcendent heights by a filmmaker of genius.
It’s difficult to talk about the film without making it sound maudlin or bathetic. The fashion in which young Zhao Di (the radiant Zhang Ziyi, who was the petite warrior-thief in “Crouching Tiger”) pines after idealistic Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao) on paper would be unbearably cute, and the way in which her older self (the stern, grieving Zhao Yuelin) insists on everything being just so for her husband’s burial cheaply sentimental; even the stylistic switch from black-and-white in the contemporary sequences to lush, vibrant color in the flashbacks could, in lesser hands, seem just a calculating trick. Here, however, it all works, because the director achieves a remarkable emotional purity that renders the result poetic rather than mawkish. In “The Road Home,” there’s a hundred times more romantic fulfillment in the single nod of the head when Luo Changyu first acknowledges Di than in the steamy sex scenes one sees in innumerable Hollywood movies, and a sequence in which a broken bowl is carefully mended conveys more of true human affection than the overly explicit action and dialogue we get in other pictures. When we watch an old woman laboriously weaving a funeral cloth, the effect could be sappy but here is wrenchingly moving. Even a finale in which the dead man’s ex-students return to carry his body back to their home village has some of the wonderful sense of uplift in the midst of sadness that marked the original “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
The picture succeeds so well because it achieves an almost perfect balance of potentially discordant elements. On the one hand, its structure is clearly manipulative, but on the other it seems practically devoid of artifice. At times it creates an almost neorealist documentary mood, with crisp, static black-and-white compositions, but it then segues effortlessly into rich, voluptuous color images, bathed in a glow that makes them seem a dreamlike memory. And while the young Di is all wide-eyed innocence and lovesick energy, whirling about with pigtails flying to catch a glimpse of the object of her affection, her aged version exhibits a humble matter-of-factness that takes on an almost mythic quality. In less skilled hands the mixture would congeal into mush, but here it seems immaculate and right; Zhang’s moves strike one as inevitable, not mechanical, and his careful juxtaposition of dissimilar elements unerring.
It’s entirely appropriate, if momentarily disconcerting, that when, at the beginning of the picture, the couple’s grown son Luo Yusheng (Sun Hongleu) arrives home and accompanies his widowed mother back to her house, the walls prove to be decorated not only with Chinese characters but also with posters advertising “Titanic.” Like James Cameron’s blockbuster, “The Road Home” is a celebration of a love that overcomes all obstacles and survives the passing of a generation, but it achieves far greater resonance and emotional honesty without giant water-tanks, a huge budget, state-of-the-art special effects or any nudity, however chastely presented. It may seem naive and almost childish on the surface, but it’s one of those rare films–Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games” (1951) is another–that strips away the inessentials to achieve a wondrously powerful simplicity. To use a shopworn phrase that used to be featured in cheap advertising, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry watching “The Road Home,” but in this case you won’t be ashamed to do either. The picture is schmaltz raised to the level of art.