The thing I like about the films of Zhang Yimou, especially the early ones like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern is that he takes such complete advantage of being almost the only filmmaker in the world today who is allowed to wallow in nostalgia for a frankly reactionary past. The reason for this is of course not far to seek. The horrors of China’s history in the 20th century are always just offstage — or, as in the account in Red Sorghum of the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s, occasionally on stage — and they make a rural life of poverty and hardship and rigid class division look positively idyllic by comparison. There, the timeless rhythms of agricultural life and the glories of wild nature thrillingly photographed nearly persuade us for ninety minutes or so that politics is really only an insignificant part of existence.
This has never been more true than in The Road Home, Zhang’s latest film to reach the West. As in his other movies — and as you might expect from someone whom the Chinese authorities mostly, despite occasional glitches, continue to patronize — there is a somewhat embarrassing coyness about the millions slaughtered under Chairman Mao. But then again, perhaps the gorgeousness of his portrayal of pre-Communist China — or, as in this case, the part of China that remained largely untouched by the Communist bureaucracy in the late 1950s — is as near as the Communist leaders of today and their cultural spokesmen can get to an apology for the almost unimaginable atrocities perpetrated by their predecessors and never confessed to or in the least atoned for.
Politics does make a brief and very discreet appearance in the film when the young schoolmaster Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), who has come to the remote village of Sanhetun in 1958 and captured the heart of the illiterate peasant girl Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi), is suddenly recalled to the capital for unnamed political offenses. He tells Di, whose interest in him he has only just discovered and begun shyly to reciprocate, that he will be back before the end of the school term, and she waits in the snow all day on the appointed day, a touching image of forlorn faithfulness. But Chairman Mao does not in this instance exact a blood tribute, and the love story has a happy ending as he only gets a couple of years in a labor camp for whatever it was he was supposed to have done. Or said. Or thought. Naturally, we don’t see anything of the labor camp.
We know anyway that the lovers will ultimately be united because of the framing device by which their son, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) is returning to the village in the present day for his father’s funeral. His mother, played in age by Zhao Yuelin and looking considerably older than 58 or 59 years that the film’s chronology would allow her (one can readily believe that peasant life, to say nothing of Cultural Revolutions, would age a person) wants her late husband to have a traditional funeral. Since he died at the provincial hospital, some distance from the village, it is incumbent on the men of the village to carry his coffin along the road back to the village so that he will know the way home. The trouble is that there are no men of the village. Everyone able-bodied has long since emigrated (like the younger Luo himself) to the burgeoning cities of China’s dynamic new economy.
Her son solves this problem by making an appeal to his father’s former pupils and soon has more volunteer pall bearers than he can shake a stick at. Their procession up the long, still-unpaved road to the village, like all the scenes set in the present day, is shot in black-and-white, and adds even more poignancy to the love story, shot in gorgeous color and told in flashback by the couple’s son. By this time Zhang Yimou has pulled out all the emotional stops with music as lush as the photography and poetic details piled on top of one another in reckless profusion in the voiceover narration by the son. The most poetic of these is that his mother — who, remember, was illiterate — fell in love with the sound of her husband’s voice, leading the village children’s chant of their lessons. “After 40 years I still love the sound of that voice.”
And then, miraculously, she hears it again! Luo Yusheng tells us that he has, if only for a moment, fulfilled his mother’s dream: “I gathered the students and said I would teach them for one day. I stood in my father’s place, where he had stood for so many years…The book I use is the book he used on that first day…Not a textbook, but a book he wrote himself.” And the chants he leads them in include, among other things: “Know the present, know the past.” Here, obviously, is a director who knows how to jerk a tear or two, but it is just because we know the past a bit better than the film wants us to know it that we are even more conscious than we would otherwise be that such sentiment, affecting though it nevertheless is, is just a bit too good to be true.