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May 9, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia»china»film

Movie Review: The Road Home

Every now and then I get annoyed at how far my foreign language skills have slipped, and I saturate myself in media way above my level. At the Civil Society event, there were a lot of Spanish- and Mandarin- speakers there, and so now I have a ton of Spanish and Mandarin movies in my Netflix queue. Last night I watched The Road Home, which I'd been looking forward to, because it's by Zhang Yimou (Hero) and stars Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It wasn't a bad movie. It wasn't very good either.

The Road Home begins with a young man returning to his home village for his father's funeral. His mother insists that the father, a former schoolteacher, must be carried back to the village on foot, as is tradition. This prompts the flashback that makes up most of the story--how the schoolteacher and his wife met and fell in love. It's an old story, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one. And there's a lot going for this, frankly. The cinematography is quite good, using the backdrop of rural China to full effect, including a stunning set of snowbound shots. Zhang Ziyi turns in a very good performance--Americans who are used to seeing her as a flawlessly beautiful martial artist will, I think, be surprised to see her with such baggy clothes and awkward movements, but it's a really well-done physical portrayal.

Still, the movie drags a bit. The courtship between the schoolteacher and Zhang is chaste and, while cute, not terribly passionate. This is a G-rated flick in more ways than one. There's never really any tension between the two lovers, and no sense of discovery. When the teacher is hauled back to the city for political reasons (most likely the Cultural Revolution), Zhang waits for him patiently and obsessively, but I wasn't really convinced that she should have. Likewise, at the end of the film, when the father's funeral is supported by hundreds of his former students, it's a nice gesture but one that's not really supported by the rest of the movie. It's simply meant to be a given somehow that he was a great, inspiring teacher.

The Road Home has won several international awards, but I'm not really sure why--surely there were better foreign flicks available in 2001. It felt to me like an old Disney film--it's a throwback. It's a quality movie, make no mistake, but there's no real distinctiveness to go with that quality. It's accessible for an American audience, with no obscure customs or motives that need to be translated across cultural boundaries. All in all, I'd say this is a good lazy Sunday film, or a fine date movie, if your date is into subtitled Chinese drama.

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