Last month the local library district hosted a film festival on three consecutive Thursday nights, showing some Chinese movies that I hadn’t seen. I was interested, but my schedule doesn’t allow me to just up and saunter over to the theater on a weeknight, so I found two of the movies at the library and watched them when I did have some time.
The Road Home was a fine movie, most especially as the screen debut of young Zhang Ziyi, who would go on to be the “invincible sword goddess” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Here, she is a rural farm girl infatuated with a city slicker school teacher. Her charmingly unselfconscious devotion is a breath of fresh air.
In what was the movie’s most entertaining scene, she runs through the woods trying to catch up to the teacher as he’s being taken by a carriage back to the big city. She rushes over and down wooded hills to cut off the carriage and give her crush the meal in a bowl that she’s lovingly prepared for him. The camera tracks long shots of her running through the forest in thick snow pants, the only sound a deep corduroy zhoop-zhoop-zhoop. Its simple romance–for emotion and for nature–is elemental.
My 9-year-old son was watching this one with me, and around this point he even said, “I wish I lived near a forest. It would be so calm and peaceful to be able to just sit around and listen to the birds.” So it runs in the family.
The text on the movie case sells it as a profound love story told in flashback to a son who starts off skeptical about his mother’s wishes for his father’s funeral, but ends up changed by the power of their story. Such melodrama is neither appropriate nor necessary. The Road Home is never so overwrought as all that. The son is only mildly reluctant at first, and the climactic funeral procession, which would have been a spectacularly somber parade had it been filmed by Hollywood, is another achingly realistic scene here, penetrating in its honest simplicity.
So don’t see it because it’s supposed to be a dramatic Shakespearean tour-de-force, because it isn’t. Much like another film I’ve praised here–The Straight Story–this film succeeds precisely because it eschews such juvenile conventions.
The other film I saw was even better. Iron and Silk is not only a true story, the two people who figure most prominently in it are played by the actual men themselves. The American teacher who goes to China wrote the memoir upon which the film is based, and the Chinese martial arts teacher who mentored him during his time there said that nobody else could portray him properly. Both offer up some impressive acting chops.
Like The Road Home, this film makes the most of its atmospheric locale (China really is one of the most beautiful places in the world), and the training scenes are among the most dazzling I’ve ever seen: better even than one of my favorite movies, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
I need to point out that this one is not technically a Chinese movie, as it was produced by Americans in Hollywood, but several key parts of the dialogue are done in Mandarin with subtitles, which this nascent student of that amazing tongue appreciated: I understood more than I thought I would have.
During last year’s Beijing Olympics, the media made as much as possible out of China’s “reaching out” to the rest of the world. Seeing this story of an earnest American visitor in the early 80’s and the opposition he faced there, despite the majority of his contacts being wonderful people, created a riveting portrait of worlds colliding.
Both films are perfect for the whole family, and come highly recommended.