Killer Imports: The Road Home

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Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

I’m going to review an older film called The Road Home, because it’s one of my top ten favorite films ever. I realize that this is a highly subjective opinion, because I doubt there are more than a handful of people who might put this movie into their top ten. This film has garnered some attention so it’s not like a hidden gem that I’ve discovered. It did win the Audience Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and it won the Grand Prix Silver Berlin Bear at the 2000 Berlin International Film Festival. (I don’t know what other films have been given this honor.)

The director, Zhang Yimou, is one of the most famous Chinese directors known in the world. I’ve reviewed his Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles for Killer Imports. And the lead actress, Ziyi Zhang, is one of the most famous Chinese actresses in the world; though, at the time she made this film, she was an unknown. Her film after this, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would make her an international star.

The story starts in black and white in the present day. A son returns home to his mother. His father has died and the mother wishes him to be buried in a special place, but the son doesn’t understand why they need to go to all this trouble. The story flashes back to how the mother and father met, and the difficulties they had in getting together. You might expect that the difficulties include things like a war interrupting their lives or some other major world event, but we only see the simple life in a village in rural China. Then the story returns to the present to resolve the issue of the father’s burial.

A simple G-Rated for General Audiences story told without any humor. There is no profanity. There is no nudity, no sex scene, no kissing, and not even any holding of hands. There are no gunfights, no sword fights, no kung-fu fights, no fights of any kind at all. Okay, the mother’s feelings are hurt when the father tells her that he has to leave town right away. And one bowl gets accidentally broken. (I might have revealed too much. Just kidding.) There are no explosions, and no vehicle chases. Oh, there is a scene where the mother chases after a cart. Basically, there’s nothing that I usually watch movies for.

If someone were to say that nothing happens in the film, then I might have to concede that point. So what is it about this film that makes it deserve an entry into my top ten favorite films? It represents a much idealized version of love. In a time when arranged marriages were the norm in China, this story is about a woman who chooses who she wants to be with even though the attraction seems rather superficial in a Chinese cultural sense. Some reviewers have been unkind as to suggest that the father is “ugly” in appearance. But the father is a school teacher, a highly respected position, from outside of the mother’s village, and so he would be seen as good husband material. Given that the mother is still living in the same village when her husband has died would seem to indicate that she did not have aspirations of a better life elsewhere and so the love and devotion she had may not have been so superficial after all.

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The lifetime of love shown in this film does ignore the difficulties that arise from living together and raising a child. Perhaps this film is a celebration of the new freedoms within China. It doesn’t criticize the past. Even though the Chinese language is not a romance language, the Chinese have never had a problem keeping their numbers high. Quite the opposite. Culturally, earlier Chinese generations did disapprove of divorce. Maybe love isn’t all you need?

I would say that anyone’s top ten favorite films should be a reflection of the individual. And the reasons why any film is on someone’s favorite’s list may be varied. Each film will have its own special meaning to the viewer. What makes this film special to me is the feeling that it gives me. I don’t need this film to surprise me with anything. For me, a film doesn’t need to be re-watchable to be great, but I never seem to get tired of watching this film. Could it be that I’ve become smitten with Ziyi Zhang?

I’ve already written about how I did not initially find her physically attractive in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this film, she is bundled up in clothing all the time and it is her face that is captivating. I find that she emotes well with facial expressions. Beyond that, I read that she affected an unusual waddle running style for the film based on her observations of locals at the location.

The music is by San Bao. I really should do a more thorough search to find some other music he has composed. The soundtrack for this film consists mainly of variations on a single theme. For me, this single theme never loses its charm. I have some of the tracks on my MP3 player. When I used to ride my bike home after work late at night with no one on the streets, this music would lift my spirits and make me happy.

Like the film, I will keep this review short and sweet. The film is not too sentimental. Any tears you shed will be those of happiness. I will leave you with some words that I first heard from Rod Serling. They are taken from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

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  • TheAllKnowingGod

    Wonderful review Reed. I agree, this movie is also one of my favourites.

  • Matt

    Wow, great review. Thank you for bringing this film up. I saw this film a few years ago and really loved it. But over the years I forgot what it was called and forgot about it. A chinese friend of mine lent me a couple of bootlegged vcd movies. One of the was Jet Li’s The Black Mask and for some reason the other movie that he gave me was The Road Home. I was really into action movies at the time and thought there would be no reason to like The Road Home. But I decided I would give it a chance anyway. And I was really glad I did. The simple story was indeed simple, but it was a lot more than that. It was very touching. And all of the characters felt like human beings and had depth. It felt like watching through a window into a culture that I would never experience. Thanks for reviewing this film, Reed. I’ll try and find it as soon as I can so I can watch it again.
    On the other hand I watched five minutes of The Black Mask and immediately got sick of it.

  • I thought for sure that this review would generate no comments at all. From the comments left on Film Junk, I would have expected this film to be off the radar for all of you. Who would have guessed that you guys actually have a sensitive side? Ha ha.

    Thx for your comments, TheAllKnowingGod and Matt. It’s good to know that my critical assessments aren’t always off base.

  • JNagarya

    Are you kidding — “generate no comments”? Having realtively recently discovered Zhang Ziyi (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers”), and perhaps also become “smitten” — which takes nothing from her as an actress — I figured I’d try “The Road Home” sight-unseen.

    It arrived yesterday, and — speechless after first viewing: it is beyond the reach of superlatives — I watched it another 3 times. And another 3 this past evening. Honest, I have another 8 DVDs to watch of films I’ve either not seen in a while, or not seen at all. But “The Road Home” stays in mind, and calls one back to it, in part because of the exquisite cinematography, and in part because of Ziyi’s immeasurable charm. (Or as a reviewer put it elsewhere, she is “seriously cute” — and, of course, more than that.)

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so perfect a film.

    And the breaking of the bowl is so heartbreaking. Only added to by the happening with the hair pin.

    I have a hunch more are going to discover this film — I’ll be actively endeavoring to see to it that that happens — and it will eventually achieve the attention it so thoroughly deserves.

  • JNagarya, Ziyi does a great job in selecting the films she makes, probably because she chooses to work with great directors. If you’re going to try finding some of her other films that you didn’t list, I highly recommend “2046.” It’s kind of arty, but it’s beautiful to look at and the music is great in my opinion. “Purple Butterfly” is really arty with long takes.

    Today I bought TMNT in which she does some voice work. Now that’s fan dedication! (OK, Patrick Stewart also does some voice work in the movie and I’m a Trekkie.)

  • And TMNT is a good film. You can read my review on FilmJunk Reed.

  • JNagarya

    “Ziyi does a great job in selecting the films she makes, probably because she chooses to work with great directors.”

    It’s also, of course, that the directors choose her to be in their films. (She says about “Memoirs” that after that she got a lot of Hollyowood offers — but she turned them down, because they were all “victim” roles in which the character is sold into slavery.)

    What astonishes is how good she is in her very first film — “The Road Home”. The character is just turned 18, and she in real life is only about 19-20. (She turned 30 in February, 2009.)

    And the next year she is in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” and does a phenominal job beyond her years. And — yes — though not a dancer in the sense of a Michelle Yeoh, who trained at London Ballet, she does do her dances on film. Including the “Winter Dance” in “Memoirs,” which I think blew at least a few of her colleagues in the film away without their having to act.

    Ziyi is definitely (to say the least) much more than “just a pretty face”. And “The Road Home”: beyond the reach of all deserved superlatives. All those superlatives apply, but are humbled by it.

    What, by the way, in “TMNT”?

  • Bengt Skött

    Thank you for a great review. Just before reading it I put in on my own list of top-10 film experiences ever.
    A true gem, finer than any jade creation I have seen on my two China trips. I could to go back very soon to China, the rural China, to reflect, only because of this film.
    And yes, Ziyi is also SO good in “Memoirs of a Geisha”.
    Bye from Stockholm, Sweden.

  • “The Road Home” might have a bigger cult following than I realized. Ziyi Zhang recently tied for fifth place in a list of the most beautiful women in the world, so I guess “The Road Home” might find fans who are looking into her oeuvre.

    I missed a chance to visit China with my parents.

    Bengt, I didn’t like Ziyi’s character in “Memoirs.” She was too submissive for my taste.

    Oh, speaking of her other films, I also highly recommend “Hero” and “Musa.”

    And, JNagarya, “TMNT” is the CGI Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I have no idea why Ziyi agreed to provide her voice for this film, although Henrik reviewed this movie for Film Junk and gave it a “3.5 out of 4″ rating.

  • JNagarya

    “Bengt, I didn’t like Ziyi’s character in ‘Memoirs.’ She was too submissive for my taste.”

    It was the cahracter — not Ziyi — that was submissive. And that was the storyline — a child who was beaten down. Note when she first gets togethre with Mameha (Michelle Yeoh): she had learned not to dare to look others in the eye. But Mameha was kind to her, and she blossomed from there.

    Submissive? In the teahouse scene in which Hatsumomo insults her — “Today even a common chambermaid can be a geisha” — Sayuri shows a sharp and assertive wit. Hatsumomo says, “Sometimes the best remark is silence,” to which Sayuri responds, “What better advice to follow than your own.” Not at all submissive by then.

    It was also cultural: the awful scene with the baron was a trap in part because of the social limitations imposed upon women; it would have been even worse for her had she more forcefully defended herself.

    I’ve seen a few knocks against the film itself, but not that many, and none of them convincing; they seem mostly to be based upon envy, jealousy. Some were about it being “inaccurate” in this or that way; so I got and watched (a number of times now) the documentary, “The Secret World of Geisha” — and was surprised at how accurate “Memoirs” actually is.

    Otherwise, I’ll watch for your review of “Forever Enthralled” (is the “assassination” only in the trailer? my disk skips), in which Ziyi sings!

  • JNagarya, I was careful to say “Ziyi’s character” in my comment about “Memoirs” and my “she” in the next sentence was referring to “Ziyi’s character,” but I appreciate your defense of her character and the movie anyway. Overall, I was disappointed in the movie “Memoirs.” I thought it would be really good since there were so many talented people involved with it. As usual, people thought the book was way better. I have the book, but I haven’t bothered to take the time to read it.

    As for “Forever Enthralled,” I don’t have an English sub-titled version of it. I’m having a hard time working up the enthusiasm to finish watching the movie. I have some interest in the subject matter of Chinese opera, but I have other movies and TV shows to watch that are of more interest to me right now.

  • JNagarya

    “Forever Enthralled”: the only version of which I know (got locally, at brick-and-mortar) is English-subtitled. But see my review on Amazon about my experience with it (with, that is, the DVD: import from HK; menu almost entirely in Chinese): on first viewing I sorta freaked at the sound of the singing. On repeat view, though, I began to understand it.

    It helps that Ziyi sings in it (my Amazon review gives the details): in the first instance it’s a humorous context — quite funny; and she sings the “male” part (see my Amazon review) of the dialogic song. Shortly thereafter you see her (and the main character) perform the same song (only a fragment) on stage in full makeup. See my review for the particulars.

    She looks more “mature” than I’m used to because she has short hair. Anyway, give the DVD a chance — and I hope it doesn’t skip as my first did.

  • JNagarya

    On “Forever Enthralled”: You might want to Google (or do a search on Amazon) “Mei Lanfang” (without the quotes). What you’ll find is quite surprising — and intriguing.

    I exchanged the DVD that skipped and got one that doesn’t. Go to chapter 5, where Ziyi first comes in (I think) and watch through chapter 7. My first reaction to the singing (by Lanfang) was as described in my Amazon review. But when he sang with Meng Xiaodong (Ziyi), her singing changed my reaction — I quite enjoyed it. It is also a humorous episode, in which she delights, as she often does. (Apparently in real life — unlike the film — he and she married, had children, and divorced.)

    One result is that I’ll for certain be looking more at Chinese opera. And will have to get “Princess Racoon” soon, as apparently Ziyi sings several songs in that. Another is that I’ll be modifying my Amazon review a bit: without the skipping the film is much better than I thought.

  • JNagarya, I read your review of “Forever Enthralled.” It was interesting. I’m not a fan of “Farewell My Concubine,” so I don’t think I can appreciate “Forever Enthralled.” You mentioned that Chen Kaige went back to Chinese opera after his previous film failed. I thought his previous film, “The Promise,” was entertaining.

    As for “Princess Raccoon,” I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a highly stylized, theatrical Japanese production. The director is revered, but he’s too arty for my tastes.

  • JNagarya

    Have since got and watched “2046” — and more than once. Ziyi is phenomenal in it, which is why nearly every review I read of the film singles her out for praise.

    Vulnerable, fragile dignity. Heartbreaking. Lead character Chow is a fool!

  • I especially like 2046 for the music. I think 2046 would be ideal for playing as a visual background at a Xmas party.

    Ziyi plays a dumped woman (mirroring real-life, I speculate) in the romantic comedy, “Sophie’s Revenge,” which I watched recently without English sub-titles. Her facial expressions and body language are enough for me to understand her.

  • JNAgarya

    When it comes to who dumping who and Ziyi, I don’t know either way; but I know Chow in “2046” (she is sexyt as all get out after the first tryst with him), in which she refuses the money, is an idiot!

    The only review I’ve read of “Sophie’s Revenge” has me waiting (other films are ahead of that in immediate importance), though the reviewer admits during the review that he hate’s Ziyi to begin with. I’ll see it eventually, but so far have only seen it as VCD locally; and release with English subtitles isn’t quite available yet. Currently I’m looking into films about Mulan, and Rape of Nanking, and other documentaries about China — primarily Great Hall, Forbidden City, and current events. And in relation to the Rape of Nanking, “The Founding of a Republic” (quite good — and Ziyi gets almost a whole paragraph), and “The Soong Sisters”.

    But it’s coming time to watch “The Road Home” again to cleanse my pallet of all the corruption — Kai-Shek was a peice of work — I’ve been seeing.

  • Warren

    This is my favorite movie of all time. I’m a 53 year old retired combat soldier (male). I’ve watched this movie more than a dozen times and I cry without fail.

    Just drama. Hollywood relies too heavily on flash and special effects. The Chinese, especially Zhang Yi Mou, use basic techniques like color, symbolism…. etc

  • Warren, thx for commenting. I guess there is a cult audience for this film, but I haven’t come across any “major” critics who appreciate this film as much as some of us do. I’m guessing wildly that you’re an American, and as a combat soldier, I don’t know what there is specifically in The Road Home that you are affected by. Is it the woman’s devotion to her husband? The son’s devotion to his parents?

    I was thinking that The Road Home is too culturally based, so there would be no way for it to be remade by Hollywood. I’m guessing that most of the regular Film Junk readers and even Jay, Sean and Greg would not appreciate this film because it doesn’t fit into the genres that they like. That’s a shame.

    This raises a question in my mind. Can a film truly be great if only a small number of people are affected by it?

  • 莲

    I didn’t watch this film until last week when I came across it on Youtube (what a shame!). I am very happy that I have discovered something so beautiful. One of my top ten favorite films ever.

  • NB

    Watched this movie two days ago and am still thinking about it. Keep wanting to watch it again, but am afraid the first impact this movie had on me might become tainted.

    To answer this question: “Can a film truly be great if only a small number of people are affected by it?”

    Yes it sure can! A lot of people aren’t affected by this movie because it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people!! Truly a gem of a movie. I think this is the only movie so far on Netflix that I have given a 5/5 to.