One Friday night at the recent Calgary International Film Festival, people stood in a long line to see the Vietnamese film The Vertical Ray of the Sun, but due to problems arising from September 11 the film was stuck in California. Instead, we were told we would be seeing the Chinese film The Road Home, and after standing in line, there was no way we were leaving the theatre without seeing something.
All anybody knew was that the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, famous for his previous film Raise the Red Lantern. Given Zhang's reputation, most decided to see what was in store.
The Road Home takes place in China and tells the story of a city businessman, Luo Yusheng. He must return to his village in the countryside for the funeral of his father, a local school teacher. Yusheng must also arrange the funeral his mother wants, which involves an old custom of carrying the coffin from the nearby city back to the village, thereby letting the soul know they are on the road home. After reflecting on the stories Yusheng hears about his parents' courtship, the movie flashes back to the '50s. Even though this was still a time of arranged marriages, his mother Zhao Di (played as an 18-year-old by Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) falls for the town's new teacher, Luo Changyu. As Di falls for Changyu, we witness her pursuit edged with an intensity that is both comical and passi-onate.
I hate to admit it, but I have seen my fair share of sappy romance movies and teenage love stories. They are usually so formulaic and predictable that I don't know why studios or audiences bother with them. Sitting through all those bad romance movies was worth it, however, because it makes you really appreciate the subtle nature of films like The Road Home. Zhang is a very talented director who makes the audience believe in the relationship between two young people with little dialogue between them, and no physical contact.
A romance film with no physical contact? It's possible, and in this film it's the wonderful facial expressions and body language that convey the story of their love. Not once do you hear Di or Changyu profess their love for each other, but they don't have to because their glances from afar speak volumes.
The Road Home is funny and endearing, and never ventures anywhere near the typical sugar-coated Hollywood love story. It won the World Cinema Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival, both of which were well-deserved.
It doesn't matter that this film is in Chinese, because Zhang proves that certain things, like relationships and love transcend all language and cultural barriers.