Wo de fu qin mu qin (The Road Home) (1999)
Ever since I first rented “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” among others, Netflix has been pushing this one at me. I’d always resisted because frankly it didn’t sound that interesting. Finally I threw up my hands and said “okay, I’ll rent it already!” And am I glad that I did.
Zhang, Yimou takes only 89 minutes to tell this lovely tale of a young woman (Zhang, Ziyi) falling in love with the new teacher (Zheng, Hao) in her remote village in 1950s China. The film starts in B&W with a middle aged man (Sun, Honglei) returning to his ancestral village at the news of his father’s death. He finds his elderly mother determined to have her husband’s body brought back in the traditional manner from the larger city hospital where he died. The only problem is it’s now the dead of winter and most of the young people of the village have left to find jobs in other places. Who will carry the coffin back through the snows? As he waits for the mayor to try and hire neighboring village men, he thinks back on his parent’s courtship (which is shown in color) – something which has passed into legend in their small town.
The story is fairly basic and mainly deals with his mother’s attempts to catch the eye of the new teacher and his obvious pleasure and desire to be caught. Di isn’t educated but she can cook her way to a man’s heart and can weave better than any woman in the village. Ignoring her mother’s warnings that Luo, Changyu is above her status, she uses every trick she can think of to be near him and be noticed by him. And soon, he begins to go out of his way to be near her too including one hilarious scene when he tries to get water from the village well while she’s there but is thwarted by another village man who insists that this is too menial a type of labor for their educated teacher to do. As the story progresses, we see that not even a blizzard nor Communist Party officials can keep these two apart. But it’s at the end that it’s shown just how much Luo is revered by the generations of children he taught.
The film is slow, taking its time to show life in rural China then. How water was drawn from the wells, the cooking skills which Di uses to snag her man, how broken porcelain is repaired, how the school was built and how lovingly Di tends the school while Changyu is away. The scenery is gorgeous with Zhang, Yimou having Zhang, Ziyi in brightly color contrasting coats for most of the film. And the mushroom dumplings Di steams for Changyu look scrumptious.
I had thought I might feel cheated since the reminiscence sequence ends just as the couple is finally brought back together with no wedding or married life scenes but from the way Di mourns for her husband, I can imagine the long and happy life they obviously had. The tribute his students pay to him in death, showing the love and reverence of the villagers for their beloved teacher, brought a tear to my eye.
I will warn that if you don’t like Zhang, Ziyi you might think twice about watching the movie since there are a lot of shots of her. There’s also very little dialogue which forces the actors to convey a wealth of emotion in glances and movements – something they manage beautifully. But never doubt that it’s love at first sight for these two without all the overblown schmaltzy scenes which would try and force-feed us that fact.
So if you’re willing to take a chance on a romance with no sex – in fact I don’t think they even hold hands, a slower pace and the need to pay attention to what the actors are conveying just with their facial expressions, do as I (finally) did and give this one a go.