All aesthetics and personality traits aside, I see Zhang Yimou in the same light as Woody Allen, in that the films he made with his former lover, Gong Li, all contained intense waves of tragedy, usually resulting from the selfish actions of Li's characters (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad, et al). Similarly, Woody Allen's films with his ex Mia Farrow grew more and more painful as their relationship disintegrated. Thus, as Allen's post-Mia work – inspired by his peppy young girlfriend (now wife) Soon-Yi Previn – is generally lighter and fluffier, so too is Zhang's post-Gong Li work. Especially now that he has his peppy young girlfriend: Zhang Ziyi, the star of The Road Home.
You know her as the eye-catching little spitfire from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it was Zhang Yimou who gave her her big break with The Road Home several months earlier. (Sony Pictures Classics, the American distributor for both films, wisely sat on The Road Home while Crouching Tiger turned Zhang Ziyi into a superstar.)
The film's story defines simplicity: in a stark black-and-white contemporary China, a businessman is called home to his childhood home in order to bury his father, the beloved village teacher. While dealing with his grieving mother, he comes across a photo of his parents when they were young, and the film then bursts into gorgeous autumnal color as he relates the story of how his mother (played as a young woman by Zhang Ziyi) first fell in love with his father.
At this point, Zhang Yimou's infatuation with his leading lady pushes the film towards the realm of fetishism: Zhang Ziyi is incredibly cute, but you get endless close-ups of her smiling face whenever her unwitting suitor crosses a field or walks his young students home from school. Again and again. But it's all so sweet that I can't bring myself to call it annoying. Let's just say that if you have a crush on this actress, then here's your chance to bask in her cuteness. But if it sounds like it would be too much for you, though, then it probably is.
Fortunately, like all of Zhang Yimou's films, The Road Home has a fantastic emotional payoff – played out in the black-and-white present day – that will surely leave a lump in your throat. And technically it's first-rate, right down the line. It's hardly the best work for either of the two Zhangs, but I have to applaud a story (written by Bao Shi) that takes a quiet romance between two ordinary people and elevates it to a mythic level. Would that all human relationships were treated with such reverence.