It’s the rare filmmaker who can make me scrunch up my face to hold back tears with just a title, an image, and a plot summary on Amazon: Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles, about a father who attempts to complete a documentary began by his estranged son, now dying in the hospital. I know what to expect from a movie like that, because I’ve seen The Road Home, which isn’t even one of Zhang Yimou’s more acclaimed films.
It is, however, the debut of a young Zhang Ziyi (she shot Crouching Tiger nearly simultaneously). As terrifying as she was in the Ang Lee kung-fu movie, she’s ridiculously adorable here — barely recognizable.
In a frame narrative, we find that Ziyi plays the younger version of an elderly woman from the village whose husband has died. The son returns home for the burial, which is to be a logistically difficult ceremony of carrying the casket along the road home, so that the deceased won’t forget his way. Everyone has left, however, and the school is in tatters. The winter is cold and everyone is still.
In the past, however, things are green and pink and beautiful. We notice that there’s a great tactile sense. If something gets broken, you don’t just replace it, you have it fixed. And when it’s fixed, that attention to detail is physical.
This is a very specific culture, and the historical remembrance surrounding the romantic tale creates an impressionistic environment that is also however the only appropriate one.
The Road Home is a movie that, socio-politically, let’s say, is averse to so much that I believe in. Within, a woman is bound to tradition that is superstitious and creates a big problem for the whole village. That same woman, many years ago, falls in love with a man and goes to great, self-destructive lengths, to wait for him.
What begins very Ozu-like in theme and story, actually makes a progressive statement amidst its very traditional setting. Ziyi’s and her man’s was the first marriage in the village born of true love, and not arrangement. So there’s something.
But more important is how that love is actually delivered. This is a film with a relatively sparse script, but this is by design. There is in the stead of extensive dialogue, a rich illustration of colorful hills and the nature that so inspires our director here. He’s an amazing eye, able to frame interesting-looking things in compositions like Leone. And while Leone is also so beautiful, usually there’s also some guns and violence.
When heroine Di is waiting on the hill, spying on the guy, hoping to ‘run into him’ on his way back from the school (as the sole teacher, he walks the kids home), she has to reset day after day in logical cinematic language because she’s too nervous. Upon finally walking by him, smiling, that music swells — not to its topmost point, but enough for me to believe it did after seeing the movie the first time and thinking about it later.
This scenic, pastoral world is an ideal place. Things may not have been better then, but people find comfort in their memories, particularly in difficult times. Nostalgia and tradition can be an antidote for grief. Whether this is the character’s reflecting on the days of old, or Yimou’s, it’s a vision that I understand only in that irrational, emotional place — the heart.