It’s here that The Road Home turns into an endearing marriage of the heroic pastoralism of early Soviet film and — though Zhang would gnash his teeth at the very idea — a Hollywood love story that, for sheer dogged, love-conquers-all individualism, could rival any his-and-hers romance that has rolled off the studio lots in recent years. If innocence makes you nervous (and how could it not, these days?), you may squirm at the simplicity of this tale in which a peasant girl, whose destiny otherwise would be an arranged marriage, meets a boy who‘s way out of her league, falls instantly in love and braves all odds to be with him forever. The odds, for sure, are culture-specific: The teacher, Luo Chang-Yu (Zheng Hao), is dragged back to the city to answer a few questions about his politics, while the young Zhao Di (played by Zhang Zi-Yi) bides her time in a red jacket and a red muffler, as well as a red barrette her shy suitor pressed upon her as he left, all the while spinning on an ancient loom a lucky red banner for the tatty schoolhouse she’s spiffing up for his return. Had we not already seen Zhang Zi-Yi working up a bravura sullen smolder as the raw young warrior-in-training in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we‘d take her for a classic ingenue who’s been spending too much time watching bootleg videos and taking notes on American “It” girls down the ages. Compared to Gong Li, Zhang Yi-Mou‘s former leading lady, Zhang Zi-Yi is an open book. Nothing in that exquisite face is held back: the eyes wide-open, the full (red) lips almost comically parted in wonder, disbelief, grief, delight. We see her framed by pretty cliches — popping out of waving corn fields, posing against majestic mountains and trees delicately etched with snow expressly placed to pick out the vermilion in her padded jacket.
I can’t really make the aesthetic case for The Road Home. It lacks the saving comedy of The Story of Qiu Ju, and by all current standards it‘s a startlingly ingenuous film, a poetic-realist elegy for a disappearing class of workers who were plundered and destroyed by the very regime that trumpeted how indispensable they were to the march of socialism. Intellectually, the movie makes me uncomfortable in the way a lesser Ken Loach movie makes me uncomfortable — in the dumb, monochromatic nobility conferred on an oppressed group by an anxiously middle-class director (although Zhang Yi-Mou certainly paid his dues, having spent the ’70s as a guest of the Cultural Revolution, laboring in a rural spinning mill). Still, if ever there was an underclass that could use a little halo activity, it‘s the Chinese peasantry, who over the centuries have stoically endured brutalization at the hands of a dizzying array of cruel masters, foreign, imperial and revolutionary. Now they face the worst fate of all: insignificance, and possible obliteration — not only by a rapidly modernizing China, but by a pomo, commercial, West-facing film culture that couldn’t be more heedless of what goes on outside the cities, now or yesterday. If he carries on flying the flag for his country‘s forgotten millions, Zhang Yi-Mou is sure to become, if he hasn’t already, a dinosaur of Chinese cinema. And I bet he‘ll be only too happy to oblige.