The Road Home (1999) – Zhang Yimou

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Ostensibly this film is a glimpse of difficult times in recent Chinese political history, highlighting the perceived value of knowledge and learning, and illustrating the bonds of family love. It is a poignant reminder of fading noble values – values in danger of being lost to a world of mass-production and a society of short-termism.

A businessman returns to his family home when he hears his father has died. His mother wants to observe ancient traditional funeral rites that seem unnecessarily arduous to the son. The mother is undeterred, carrying the strength of her happy memories, and strengthened further by her own life’s struggles. This conflict of ancient and modern values sets the scene.

Like its characters it is honest and humble, revealing through its openness a formidable power. As only director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House Of Flying Daggers) knows how, “The Road Home” is formed of many subtle levels. As many layers of laquer, each aspect adds integrity and depth while preserving its clarity and lightness.

Visually it is exquisite, stretching straightforward photography to its limits – a refreshing break from our computer-generated age. In a reverse of the traditional, present day scenes are shot in (very stylish) monochrome, and memories in colour, reinforcing the ageing mother’s feeling that the present is harder and less beautiful than the past. As is customary for Zhang Yimou the use of colour is deliberate, precise and symbolic, always lavish but never gluttonous.

The star of the show is unquestionably Ziyi Zhang (Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, Memoirs Of A Geisha). This being one of her earlier films, her elfin innocence is even more apparent than in her later swashbuckling adventures, concealing as always behind her winsome smile a steely grit and unwavering determination.

The acting is superb throughout, making one loath to leave the screen to read the subtitles. The characters have such an endearing natural air it seems really like eavesdropping to listen to them, and almost rude to enter their homes to observe their tribulations.

The political climate is implied rather than expressed, woven into the landscape and lives of the characters. The plot is simple but brave, dealing with death, with the fragility of human relationships, and also with their unbreakable bond beyond death. It frames human insecurity as well as superhuman transcendence of the self.

This film warms the heart and opens the eyes. Zhang Yimou gives us a firm nudge to reassess our values and priorities in life. He does it neatly and without excessive emotion… but make sure you have a handkerchief close by.

Sumangali Morhall has been a member of the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre for 10 years. She enjoys combining meditation with the arts, especially through writing.

write by Bellamy

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