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 schoolteacher 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 traditional, 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 snowy midwinter, and most of the region's able-bodied young men have, like Yusheng, long since moved to the city in search of better jobs.
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 eighteen-year-old Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) first lay eyes on the newly arrived twenty-year-old teacher, Lao Changyu (Zheng Hao), and immediately fall in love with him.
In this outback region of China, forty years in the past, "falling in love" is a novel concept; arranged marriages are still the norm. Yet Zhao Di's infatuation is immediately clear to many, though not, at first, to the only person who counts.
Much of the flashback is taken up with Zhao Di's contriving to encounter Changyu whenever possible, finally winning his heart in a manner that might seem like stalking if she weren't so damn cute. For the final fifteen minutes, we return to black-and-white and the framing story to discover how Yusheng manages to honor his father.
Zhang Yimou's early films -- Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern -- were meticulously crafted period pieces whose sumptuous cinematography and production design served as settings for the beauty and talent of Zhang's protégé, Gong Li. Times change: During the past decade, Zhang has experimented with a new, more impromptu style. In such films as The Story of Qiu Xu, Keep Cool and Not One Less, Zhang has employed a handheld camera and a rawer, almost cinema verité look.
The Road Home is a combination of the two modes: On the one hand, the color scenes are full of gorgeous wide-screen vistas and make frequent use of "unrealistic" cinematic techniques, such as 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. Given the simplicity of the story, Zhang leans too heavily on the major elements working in his favor: Composer San Bao's lovely flute theme, with its almost Irish feel, is classic movie magic, but not since La Strada has a single, brief, unembellished melody been repeated so incessantly throughout an entire film.
While Zhang Ziyi has immediate appeal and freshness, the film often seems to be about nothing more than this. No matter how radiant her untouched beauty, Zhang Yimou gives us so many repetitive shots of her in slow motion, running after Luo and beaming infectiously at the camera, that we begin to long for anything -- mayhem, pratfalls, cheap cynicism -- to break the tedium.
If one can make it through the central section's seemingly endless swelling romanticism, the ending does deliver an emotional payoff. But the road there is so straight and unvaried that the journey can be wearing.