The Road Home

China 1999

Reviewed by John Mount


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Businessman Luo Yusheng returns to Sanhetun in north China after the sudden death of his father, the village schoolteacher. The district mayor tells Yusheng that his mother Zhao Di wants a traditional funeral which entails carrying his father's coffin many miles. The mayor fears there may not be enough local men to perform this job; most have moved to the city. Yusheng finds his mother in vigil outside the schoolhouse and takes her home. As she weaves the funeral cloth, Yusheng recalls the story of his parents' courtship.

Zhao Di is 18 years old and living with her blind mother when 20-year-old Luo Changyu arrives from East Gate to be the schoolteacher. As the village men help him construct a new schoolhouse, Zhao Di weaves some red cloth to be bound around the school's rafters. When the school opens Zhao Di visits a nearby well in the hope of catching Changyu's eye. By the time Changyu visits Zhao Di and her mother for a meal he is smitten; before their romance can blossom, however, Changyu is summoned back to the city for questioning. He leaves Zhao Di a small gift and promises to return. Zhao Di waits for hours when she hears a rumour of Changyu's imminent arrival in the village and develops a fever. Attempting to walk to the city, she collapses. Changyu sneaks home to see her without permission from the political tribunal questioning him. He and Zhao Di are kept apart for a further two years. Once he returns they are never separated again.

Yusheng gives the mayor money to transport his father by foot, but on the day of the funeral hundreds of Changyu's former pupils turn up to carry his coffin. Zhao Di reminds Yusheng of his father's wish that he become a schoolteacher. As a mark of respect Yusheng teaches the village children for one day in the old schoolhouse.


With his recent two films Not One Less and now The Road Home, both modest efforts produced on low budgets, director Zhang Yimou has set himself against the increasingly commercialised grain of contemporary Chinese cinema. But his stated desire to appropriate with these films the vigour of Italian neorealism, the French New Wave and contemporary Iranian cinema is only partially fulfilled.

The Road Home opens with a winding road trip which recalls the opening scene of Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. But the similarity is largely superficial: gifted director though he is, Zhang Yimou is unable to match Kiarostami's ability to develop and sustain narrative through camera movement and the deployment of spatial relations on screen. Neither is there any sign of the complex reflexivity that characterises Kiarostami's work.

That said, this is a sincere film which aspires to tell a simple love story - between Zhao Di, a young villager, and Luo Changyu, the local schoolteacher - in a way that celebrates unfashionable virtues such as stoic endurance in the face of adversity, the dignity of rural, unsophisticated folk, respect for family and reverence for education. Zhang reverses filmic convention by shooting the events of the present (in which Zhao Di's son recounts his parents' courtship) in cold monochrome and the past in warm colour, which hints at the shift in sensibilities over the years. The central love story itself is heartfelt and engagingly portrayed by the two young leads who convey in a few chaste smiles the constancy of their romantic bond, and there are numerous touching moments, such as when the image of Zhao Di as a young woman is loosely superimposed on that of her older self. As one would expect, the film is exquisitely photographed by Hou Yong (who shot Zhang's Not One Less) with many breathtaking visual moments, although these are sometimes coarsened by San Bao's plush music.

A director whose work has caused controversy among the Chinese authorities in the past (Raise the Red Lantern was banned for some time in China), here Zhang seems to be taking a swipe at the way traditional forms of education were attacked during the cultural revolution and the way they are it is devalued in modern, materialistic China. Unfortunately, The Road Home doesn't match the emotional force and nuance of the political critique in, say, Tian Zhuanghuang's 1993 film The Blue Kite.

For all its pleasures, The Road Home feels like a minor film from a director in transition. While Zhang's instinct to break free from the encumbrances of Hollywood production and invoke the spirit of more adventurous world cinemas is laudable, it doesn't sit easily with the times in China or indeed with his talents as a director. There is an element of autobiography in The Road Home which may explain its inward-looking nostalgia; hopefully this will recede as Zhang develops a more distinctive voice, one which recaptures the piercing conflicts, memorable characterisations and energy of the dazzling series of films he made in the first half of the 90s.


Zhang Yimou
Zhao Yu
Bao Shi
Based on his novel `Remembrance
Director of Photography
Hou Yong
Zhai Ru
Art Director
Cao Jiuping
San Bao
Production Companies
a Columbia Pictures Film production Asia presentation
A Guangxi Film Studios/
Beijing New Picture Distribution Company production
Executive Producer
Zhang Weiping
Production Managers
Zhang Zhengyan
Hu Xiaofeng
Assistant Directors
Xie Dong
Ya Te
Li Hong
Zhong Qing
Script Adviser
Wang Bin
Kang Xiaotian
2nd Cameraman
Li Xiaoping
Set Masters
Ma Ying
Hu Zhongquan
Costume Designer
Dong Huamiao
Make-up Artist
Yang Dandan
Music Performed by
Asia Aiyue Orchestra
Wu Lala
Sound Editor
Lin Qian
Zhang Ziyi
Zhao Di, young
Sun Honglei
Luo Yusheng
Zheng Hao
Luo Changyu
Zhao Yuelin
Zhao Di, elderly
Li Bin
Chang Guifa
mayor, elderly
Sung Wencheng
mayor, youth
Liu Qi
carpenter Xia, elderly
Ji Bo
carpenter Xia, youth
Zhang Zhongxi
crockery repairman
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
8,037 feet
89 minutes 18 seconds
In Colour
Chinese theatrical title
Wo De Fu Qin Mu Qin
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011