Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Road Home: A Movie Review

The Road Home, Zhang Yimou, director, 2000, 1 hour 29 minutes, Chinese with English subscripts

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, yet continue to ponder it’s meaning. The film begins in black and white. A son has been called back to his childhood village upon his father’s death and is driven across the snowy fields of northern China (interestingly, I’m pretty sure they’re driving a 4 wheel drive American Jeep). Upon arriving home, he learns his mother wants to do things the traditional way. His father was in the city when he died and she wants him to be carried by to the village by men, not by a car or even by a tractor. In this way, his spirit will remember the road. The widow also insists on making the funeral cloth on her old loom. Her son offers to buy the fabric, but she insists on doing it herself. The son then begins to think about his parents life, their forty years of love and happiness. As he recalls the familiar story (everyone in the village knows it), the film changes to color.

His mother, Zhao Di, is 18 years old. The village has a new school teacher, their first,
Lou Changyu. He is from the city, but comes to the rural town and helps the men build a school. Zhao Di and Lou Changyu notice each other, but their courtship consist primarily of glances as Zhao Di prepares meals for the workers on the school and walks further just to draws water out of the well above the school. She also weaves a fabric banner to hang from the rafters of the new school. Soon after the two meet and express their interest in the other, the authorities haul the teacher away for questioning. The next two years are unsettled times as the teacher is kept away from the village, but finally the teacher is allowed to return to the school where he spends his life teaching. His final task was to raise money for a modern school building, a task he was working on when he had a heart attack.

Much of the movie is about his parents courtship. When the film returns to the present, it’s again in black and white. The son has arranged the funeral procession for his father. Although the village didn’t think they had enough men to do the procession, hundreds of the teacher’s former students come back and take turns caring the casket back to the village. The teacher is buried in a grave, next to the now unused well (the town now has running water), a site that looks over the school. After the funeral, his widow gives her savings to the mayor for the new school and everyone is committed to the project. As a last gesture to his mother (and also father), the son volunteers to teach a day at the old school. He leads the class in recitations: “Know the present, know the past; In everything there is a purpose; Respect your elders,” etc.

The movie is beautifully filmed. The change of time is shown by the changes of the seasons. In the fall, when the aspen-like trees that dot the landscape are in full color, its beautiful. The road that connects the village to the city is also important, as the young Zhao Di waited patients by it for her lover to return, her brilliant red jacket standing in contrast to the white snowy landscape. The road is finally traveled one last time, when he is brought home. The love between the widow and her husband is vivid. It’s also an interesting political film, as we learn that at one point the young teacher must have been in trouble with the Communist party, although the trouble was never explained. His recitations (which his son continued to use when he teaches at the school) is steeped in Confucius thought and at odds with much of what Maoist China was about.


  1. You condense the movie so well I feel as if I have seen it. The end of the last paragraph sounds as it alone could be a powerful film and one that I would love to see
    (I hear "Carolina girls" at least five times a week as North Myrtle is the home of beach music or so we like everybody to think

  2. A few years ago I read a novel, it was about teachers/ educators were being questioned/ tortured/ sent to labor camps, all during the cultural revolution. It was heart wrenching.

  3. My wife has turned me on to these wonderful stories by Oriental authors as well as Chinese cinema. This sounds like a good one.


  4. Pia, I hope you enjoy the movie and don't OD on beach music!

    Mother Hen, is the book you're thinking of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie? The trouble the teacher was in was long before the Cultural Revolution--it was in the 50s

    Randall, Enjoy! I have enjoyed several good movies from China.

  5. I haven't seen this one, but other 2 movies from Zhang Yimou ("Red Sorghum" and "Raise the red lantern") and I discovered the oriental films. Then came Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and other great ones. They give a different insight to the films and tell beautiful stories.
    I'm noting this one in my "must see" list. ;))

  6. This is fascinating. I often wonder what might have happened to China if MacArthur was allowed to assist Chaing Kai-shek in setting up a democratic government. Pan Am's Juan Trippe took the proposal indirectly to President Truman who blew his top and dismissed it. The country fell to Communist forces the following year (1948). Fascinating review that, again, places us right there, Sage. Well done!

  7. That was a terrific review, Sage. You're so funny about the American Jeep. You definitely seemed to capture the essence of the story. Very well done.

  8. Leni, I'm sure Raise the Red Lantern is on my list of movies to see

    Michael, I'm not sure Chang Kai-shek was the one to set up a democracy--I had a classmate whose family was from Tawain (before the mainland fell and Chaing came over) and he didn't have any nice thing to say about him and had lost a lot of family members...

    Stephanie, the jeep was interesting to see, in the far NW corner of China.

  9. You watch movies?!?! I thought you just read books :)

    I'm not so sure how I'd do with all the Chinese and English subtitles. I've done that plenty of times with Spanish, but I at least know Spanish.

    I watched a movie in some language I don't know (it took place in one of those 'stan countries - Kazakstan or something) with no subtitles as part of a class - the teacher thought it was great, but as even he couldn't speak the language and was as clueless as the rest of us, I never got the point.

  10. You are the movie, Sage. I am not going to watch it again. Thanks for sharing. Like this part very much:

    '....she wants him to be carried by to the village by men, not by a car or even by a tractor. In this way, his spirit will remember the road.'

  11. Watching Asian subtitled movies is something that I've only done recently. I find the language to be harsh and just not enjoyable to listen to. Once I watched 'Letters from Iwo Jima' which was such a great movie (and 'Lust Caution' with all the sex scenes), I'm more open to them.

  12. No doubt I'd enjoy this film as I enjoy books about Chinese culture.

    Interesting how the wife wants him carried to his burial place. I'm sure the scenery is beautiful. I'll look for it on Netflix.

  13. I Think This Film Was Awesome ! I Give It A Two-Thumbs Up. And I Wish Every Teenager Girl Watches This Movie ! Its Sooo Interesting.. I Loveed Everything About This Movie. (: