The Road Home is the 10th feature from Zhang Yimou, still the mainland Chinese director best known to international audiences. His latest film has a number of things going for it: It represents a synthesis of Zhang's two contrary stylistic tendencies; it also centers on the debut performance of Zhang Ziyi, who subsequently went on to wow audiences everywhere as the headstrong young martial artist Jen in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still, sad to say, the story is simply too slight to sustain the film.
The Road Home begins with the first part of a black-and-white framing device: Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), an urbanized young man, returns to his rural hometown to bury his father, a teacher who has died suddenly while trying to raise funds to rebuild the abandoned schoolhouse. Yusheng's mother, Zhao Di (Zhao Yuelin), insists on doing things the old-fashioned way -- having a caravan, on foot, tote the body to its resting place, rather than hiring a car. It's a long journey, in midwinter, and most of the region's able-bodied men have, like Yusheng, long since moved to the city.
Zhao Di is adamant. And as Yusheng wonders how to change her mind, he begins to tell the story of his parents' romance. With this flashback, which occupies two-thirds of the film's running time, the movie fades into color, as we see the 18-year-old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) first lay eyes on the newly arrived 20-year-old teacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and immediately fall in love with him.
Much of the flashback is taken up with Zhao Di contriving to encounter Changyu whenever possible, finally winning his heart in a manner that might seem like stalking, if it weren't that she's so damn cute. For the final 15 minutes, we return to black and white and the framing story to discover how Yusheng manages to honor his father.
The Road Home is a stylistic combination of Zhang Yimou's earlier, meticulously crafted period pieces and his more recent, rawer works. On the one hand, the color scenes are full of gorgeous wide-screen vistas and make frequent use of "unrealistic" cinematic techniques like jump cuts and slow motion. On the other hand, the black-and-white scenes are deliberately muted and drab.
For all of Zhang's formidable craft, the central story is so linear and so uncomplicated by incident or subplot that the energy begins to flag two-thirds through. And while Zhang Ziyi has immediate appeal and freshness, the film often seems to be about nothing more than this.