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Homeward bound

Yimou's The Road Home is path worth taking

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The thoroughfare that gives Zhang Yimou's exquisite film The Road Home its title connects the small North China village of Sanhetun with a nearby city. It's a long and winding dirt lane over hills and through fields, but the film itself takes a short, straight route. The Road Home's strengths are the simplicity of its story and the directness with which Yimou tells it.

China's acclaimed director of such films as Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, Yimou began as a countryside laborer and photography hobbyist, eventually becoming a cinematographer and one of the medium's living masters of composition and color. This makes it a surprise that The Road Home begins in black and white, with the businessman narrator (Sun Honglei)

driving back to his home upon the death

of his father.

The narrator, like most of the village's young people, moved to the city for work, leaving Sanhetun populated by children and the elderly. Telling details reveal the state of the village: The only loom is in poor repair, but you can spot posters of Titanic on a wall. The narrator learns that his father, a beloved schoolteacher named Changyu, died away from home, and his widowed mother Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin) wants her husband's funeral to observe an old tradition, in which the men of the town carry the body back on foot "so he can find his way home."

As the narrator considers whether this is feasible, he recalls the story of his parents' courtship, which takes about an hour of the film's 90-minute running time. In flashback, the film converts to color, and when we see the townspeople lined up to greet Changyu (the appealing Zheng Hao), their ordinary clothes seem to have hues of astonishing brightness.

Young Zhao Di is played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi, who's nearly unrecognizable as a shy, vulnerable girl, in sharp contrast to her Oscar-nominated role as a flying, fighting aristocrat. Through her eyes, we follow the love story, which has the texture of both a piece of folklore and an oft-told family tale, the kind you hear recounted every

year at a long-wed couple's wedding anniversary.

The Road Home records numerous traditions and cultural details that one suspects now are in danger of becoming extinct. While the men build Changyu's schoolhouse, the women cook for them, and Di prepares her best dishes with the hopes of attracting his attention. She begins fetching water from the well near his schoolhouse, and later walking parallel to Changyu when he walks his students home at the end of the day.

The film has an occasional flash of humor, as when Di hopes to "accidentally" meet Changyu at the well, but a villager forcibly prevents the honored teacher from getting his own water. Other moments have a poetic sadness, as when we learn how the grandmother lost her eyesight: When her husband died, she cried until she went blind. Yimou draws our attention to a few objects -- "The Lucky Red Banner" that hangs from the ceiling of new school, the pot that Di serves food in, a red-and-black hairpin Changyu gives her -- all of which represent their budding feelings. In a town based on arranged marriages, "the freedom of falling in love was unfamiliar."

The main obstacle comes when Changyu is recalled to the city to answer ominous questions, separating the two before their love can really begin. But since the story's told in flashback, we have a strong sense of how things will turn out, keeping the suspense to a minimum. The intrusion of the state in The Road Home is relatively mild compared to Yimou's earlier films, in which a woman (invariably played by Gong Li) is destroyed by the system in the person of a husband, a ganglord or a political regime.

Yimou's prior picture Not One Less took a detour to a neorealist approach, but The Road Home returns to his lush, painterly approach of shots and scenery. The black and white of the present-day scenes suits both the wintry season and the grieving perspective of the aged mother, while the centerpiece section offers one beautiful rural image after another, such as Ziyi in a pink jacket, rising in a field lit gray by twilight. A detour from the concussive American releases of this summer, The Road Home offers a soothing, bittersweet path worth taking.

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