directed by Zhang Yimou with Zhang Ziyi, Zheng Hao, Zhao Yuelin, and Sun Honglei opens June 22 at Seven Gables



Love at first sight

Breakout role, old-fashioned romance.


directed by Zhang Yimou with Zhang Ziyi, Zheng Hao, Zhao Yuelin, and Sun Honglei opens June 22 at Seven Gables

BEFORE ANG LEE made her an action star, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi had her film debut under the aegis of Zhang Yimou (no relation). Last seen leaping over rooftops, delivering fierce roundhouse kicks, and stealing a certain sword known as the Green Destiny, Zhang first filmed this innocent, chaste, and unabashedly sentimental love story in 1999. The simple pastoral romance may also be the last time we see Zhang in rustic peasant garb, since she's due August 3 in Rush Hour 2 with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and is now working with directors like Tsui Hark (Time & Tide) and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love).

Throughout Road, Zhang's irresistible smile suggests Audrey Hepburn's first leading role in Roman Holiday, simply announcing: Here is a star who cannot be denied. Yet a few barriers must be put in the way of young Zhao Di (Zhang), who falls for her village's handsome new schoolteacher (Zheng Hao). She's an illiterate 18-year-old farm girl; he's an educated 20-year-old from the city, "out of our class," her blind grandmother warns, but Di won't heed. Her implacable pursuit is narrated in extended flashback by the couple's grown businessman son (Sun Honglei)—immediately divulging its outcome (now a village legend, he tells us).

A sweet affair of stolen glances and shy hesitations, this bygone romance comprises at least half the movie's length. We feel it mainly from Di's perspective, as her pigtails whip furiously around her head when she frantically pirouettes for a peek at her beau. At the same time, her son supplies memories from his recently deceased father, who said of Di, "She looked like a figure in a painting." Framed in a doorway, flanked by orange pumpkins, wearing her pink padded jacket and red scarf, she's a figure fixed in an idyllic past.

YET NOSTALGIA is tempered here with the realities of the age. With Chairman Mao scowling down from the schoolhouse wall, the teacher is ordered back to town for unspecified political offenses. Di desperately races after him with a steaming bowl of mushroom dumplings (she's been cooking her way to his heart), uphill and down, and the sequence has more emotional heft to it than a thousand car chases. Elsewhere, director Zhang employs dissolves and slow-motion shots more liberally than in past works, all intended to celebrate a lost era. Green fields, yellow aspen, and snowy hills form the timeless backdrop to a courtship that spans seasons and years.

These hues occasionally recall the color and sensuality of Zhang Yimou's early period dramas like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern. While Di weaves at her hand-powered loom, sun filters through the fabric to bathe her in crimson light. More than passion, however, director Zhang is honoring traditional peasant values, a way of life fast disappearing in a modernizing country. (With last year's Not One Less and 1992's The Story of Qiu Ju, Road forms the third chapter in a hardscrabble, dusty contemporary trilogy of China's rural interior.)

Thus, in Road's framing story, the sight of aged Di (Zhao Yuelin) is doubly moving—not just for her stooped widowhood, but also for her embodiment of the old China. Every bit as stubborn as she was decades before, Di insists on a customary funeral procession for her husband. As the son seeks to fulfill her wishes, old and new China uneasily converge. All the young people have left the village, he's told; he himself hasn't been back in years. (Although, amusingly, a poster for Titanic adorns his mother's walls.) Meanwhile she weaves a white burial cloth on her old loom. "I have to finish this," she declares, even if her son has to pay for the procession.

Like her rhythmic weaving, The Road Home obdurately follows a pulse out of tempo with the modern world. In it, you can still hear the distant heartbeat of a girl in love, which echoes undiminished to this day.

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