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Friday, Dec. 8, 2000

'THE ROAD HOME'

Simple remembrance of things past


Minimalism is a hard feat to pull off in any medium.

Sure, it's easy enough to bore an audience out of their heads, but to successfully pull maximum output out of minimum input, now that is a true challenge.

For Zhang Yimou's latest, "The Road Home" (Japanese title: "Hatsukoi no Kitamichi"), which took the Silver Bear award at this year's Berlin Film Festival, the director went back to basics to sculpt an almost naive tale of girl-meets-boy; it's very simple, and very, very good.

With less plot to deal with, Zhang pours extra energy into how he tells it, making sure to let the viewer fall for his radiant lead actress Zhang Ziyi (the stealthy thief of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Zhang plays less on the mind's rhythmic addiction to twists of plot, and works instead on the heartstrings, painting the film's emotions in colors as bold as his heroine's red scarf and pink winter coat.

"The Road Home" begins, in black and white, in present-day China. A businessman named Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns in the middle of a bleak winter to his hometown, Sanhetun, in the rural north. Luo's father has died suddenly, and his mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), is in a deep state of grief; Luo finds her sitting alone in the cold outside the tattered village schoolhouse where Luo's father used to teach.

Di desires a traditional funeral for her husband, but Luo fears there may not be enough men left in the village to carry the coffin the long distance necessary; only old men and children remain in the village, as all the others have migrated to the city. As Luo mulls over what to do, his thoughts turn to the past, and the tale of how his parents fell in love. . .

Cue the vibrant color, as the film cuts back four decades in time. Di is a bouncy 18-year-old (played by Zhang Ziyi) whose heart starts beating faster when she glimpses the new schoolteacher who comes to her village, a fresh-faced young cadre named Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao). The film captures the slightly stifling feel of a small village of the time, where arranged marriages were the norm, and romantic love barely heard of. Di is forced to admire Luo from afar, and she arranges a few pretexts to catch his eye -- waiting for hours by the side of the road to "accidentally" bump into him on his way home, or drawing water from the well near the schoolhouse, and lingering in the hopes that Luo will emerge.

But with few opportunities to meet Luo, Di cooks for him. Her hearty lunches are just one among many that the village women prepare for the guys building the school, but Di hopes her painstakingly prepared food will catch Luo's attention. All this giddy romance is bracketed, lightly but tellingly, by Di's situation: Her mother is blind, she's obviously lonely and it's clear that if this guy slips by, there may well be no others in her future.

This undercurrent of loneliness gives the film its resonance, and one final shot is almost impossibly sad, as the past joy of Di's reunion with her lover fades away to the present, where she must bury her dead husband in the frozen earth. Zhang also includes a mild subtext of social commentary -- changing values, the loss of idealism and love trumping the state's demands -- but these are all grace notes, as Zhang's main concern is emotion and the sort of innocent humanism found in modern Iranian cinema.

The film rests entirely on the performance of Zhang Ziyi, as it is largely 90 minutes' worth of the camera falling in love with her, gorgeously framed close-ups that register her beauty -- of face and heart -- in 100 different ways. This treads precariously close to the abyss known as "idol," and, in fact, Zhang Ziyi performs in a style that 99.9 percent of Japanese actresses aspire to: an intensely direct and uncomplicated expression of emotion (happy, sad, bashful, giddy, etc.). But Zhang Ziyi succeeds where so many others fail, knowing how to let the emotion arise slowly, naturally, a talent that sets her apart from the actresses who flit from one well-practiced mask to another.

This is Zhang Yimou's best work in a long while, and almost certainly his warmest. As the director's relationship with his longtime partner and leading lady Gong Li began to chill, so did his films, which hit an ultimately bleak note with "Shanghai Rouge." It would seem that in order to finally exorcise this heartache, he fashioned a tale of true love, pure in its simplicity, accurate in its memory of what first love felt like.

"The Road Home" is uncompromising: It demands the memory of innocence on the part of the viewer. Zhang throws you full force into the throes of teen passion -- that giddy thrill of a passing smile, the utter despair of a missed chance -- and you either succumb to it or you don't. For many (judging by the theater full of jaded critics that "The Road Home" left sobbing) this will be poignantly evocative of one's own youthful expectations of what love was all about.

A footnote: The pamphlet for "The Road Home" includes a page of recipes for many of the dishes that Di cooks in the film; country home-cooking, Chinese-style. This amateur chef had great success with the kinoko gyoza, stir-fried zucchini and eggs, and a hot bowl of fried awa (millet). Worth a try.

"The Road Home" opens tomorrow at Bunkamura's Le Cinema, Shibuya. (Dialogue in Mandarin.)


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