by Ruby Gege, who is officially addicted to Zhang Yimou’s films
I have to say, amongst Mr Zhang’s many works, The Road Home, which I watched not more than three days ago, is my favourite. His style, which weaves the elements of misery, realism and hope so beautifully, speaks to me as an audience. Each of his films seems to have a life of its own. Watching the stories unravel is akin to getting to know a new person in your life. It is not just a film; it is an experience. (I think I sound over-dramatic but who cares?)
The Road Home is a welcoming shift of mood, I have to say, in a string of Mr Zhang’s films that I watched. Most of them always dealt with the bitterness of life and human survival. However, The Road Home, though essentially maintaining those characteristics, is special as it presents its love story in the most hopeful and inspiring manner. And for a brief 30 minutes of my life, I believed in love. Ah, what a sweet moment it was!
The story begins with Luo Yusheng, a city man who returned to his hometown in frosty rural China to arrange for his father’s funeral. He went to see his mother, who insisted that his father’s body be carried from the morgue to the village by foot, a demand other villagers found to be quite demanding as it was winter and not many young people were strong enough to help carry the casket. However, his mother was adamant. The story, then, shifts to the past, decades ago, telling the love story of his parents.
His mother, Zhao Di was a girl not more than 18 years old and the most beautiful girl in the village. She spent most of her time taking care of her almost-blind mother. When the village received a new teacher, Luo Changyu, a young active 20 years old man, Zhao Di was instantly attracted to him. Thus, she took several efforts to catch his attention. She would cook her best dishes for the villagers to lunch, potluck-style, for three days in hope of him picking her dishes (which he did not). She made a red cloth requested from the villagers and delivered them to the school in hope of seeing him (but she did not get to). She purposively fetched water from a well near the school in order to catch a glimpse of him, when there was actually a nearer well by her house. Most amazingly, she would wait for him, hiding behind the hills as he walked his students back to their homes, in order to meet him ‘coincidentally’ so that they could smile at each other. They never really talked, mind you. Most of their courtship developed through mutual intrigued glances and smiles. At times, the words they spoke to each other did not exceed five. Yet, it was obvious that they were attracted to each other.
I love how hopeful, confident and hardworking Zhao Di was as a young girl pursuing the man of her dreams. She really put in the efforts yet never forced him to like her. She would silently stare from afar, hoping for him to feel the same. Thank goodness he did, though. There was this very staunch sincerity in her I find so endearing.
Their love story was cut short when the teacher was summoned back to the city. That day, Zhao Di made him mushroom dumplings, knowing that it was his favourite food. As he was forced to break his promise to visit her house that afternoon, Zhao Di grabbed the bowl of dumplings with her and chase the horse carriage that was taking her beloved back to the city. I’m not sure how many miles she ran, but she ran hard. She ran and she ran, the dumplings in her hand, wanting so desperately for him to taste them. She fell, the carriage left and the bowl was shattered to pieces.
What a heartbreaking scene! *cries*
Zhao Di waited for him to return, as he promised to come back by 27th of a certain month. By this time, her heart was already with the teacher and she lived through her daily lives in emptiness. She improved the conditions of the village school, changing the paper on the window, cleaning the classrom and sat there for a long time, missing him. On the promised date, Zhao Di waited for the teacher to come home in the freezing winter by the street side, her heart leaping at every carriage that passed by the village.
He did not return. Zhao Di ended up falling ill for three days. Upon waking up, she realized that the teacher had returned to her upon receiving news of her condition. The teacher had to leave to the city the next day to complete his punishment and they were separated again for two years. The teacher came back again to serve the village and never left Zhao Di’s side until the day he passed away.
The story then returned to its present time. The love story explained the older Zhao Di’s stubbornness in insisting her late husband’s casket to be carried home. She did not want her late husband to forget the road home, which had been so symbolic of their love as the younger Zhao Di waited for him devotedly, never giving up on him.
*cries, again. Oh, this is so touching!*
During the day of the ceremony, it turned out that more than 100 people came to help the mother and son to carry the casket. They were Zhao Di’s late husband’s former students, who considered it an honour to be able to participate in the ceremony.
I have to say… The Road Home is a far more pleasant memory that I expected it to be. First, I am used to seeing Gong Li in a Zhang Yimou film. Thus, when their relationship ended and Mr Zhang found a new muse in Zhang Ziyi (who played Zhao Di), I was greatly sceptical. I was like… “hmm, can she be at last half as good as Gong Li? Because really, Gong Li is AMAZING!” How wrong I was. She carried the film like a top-notch actress (she was barely 20 while filming this, her debut film). Her character, Zhao Di is the heart and soul of The Road Home. Whilst watching her journey, we cannot but to be absorbed in her giddiness upon seeing her beloved, her happiness and hope, her fears and worries of her love unreturned and her steadfast belief of her beloved’s return to the point that we wish the teacher would come back to her as much as she did.
I should have watched it a bit earlier to appreciate the innocence of love portrayed by the characters, which is quite rare amongst the collection of Chinese films I have. It has managed to put a smile on my face each time I think of it, making me think – if I can encounter a love like that, how nice it would be.
Coming back to real life, of course I won’t! Urbanization is a cruel thing. It takes away the innocence in people. And limit your chances to ever have this kind of experience, people.