Zhang Yimou Romances Us and His New Gong Li

Zhang Yimou’s The Road

Home , from a screenplay by Bao Shi, based on his novel Remembrance , is quite simply the best and most emotionally engaging

film I have seen this year. It has a seemingly naïve idealism and virtue in a

cinematic cosmos drenched with “neo-noir” cynicism and brutality. In some ways,

The Road Home reminds me of a time

when Hollywood specialized in heroic biographies of even the humblest and least

charismatic benefactors of humankind, much to the disdain of supposedly

sophisticated intellectuals. But The Road

Home is perhaps more aptly compared with the more memorable memory films of

John Ford, which is to say that The Road

Home is a beautifully resonant work of art.

A measure of Mr. Yimou’s artistic ambition is his chromatic

division of the narrative between a black-and-white present and a brightly

colored past. The black-and-white section of the film begins in contemporary

China with the return of a city businessman, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), to his

native village after the sudden death of his father. His elderly mother, Zhao

Di (Zhao Yuelin), flatly rejects her son’s suggestion that the coffin be

transported by tractor from the distant hospital where he died to his family’s

burial site, located outside the local school where he taught for many years.

Men must bear the coffin. Zhao Di also insists that Luo bring her the family’s

decrepit loom so that she can weave a funeral cloth for her husband. The image

of the old woman laboriously weaving the funeral cloth sets the stage for

parallel shots of Zhao Di at 18 (played by Zhang Ziyi) working at the same loom

in a chaste but madly passionate pursuit of Luo’s father, Luo Changyu (Zheng

Hao), the village teacher.

The lyrical and

color-inflamed past of Luo’s parents unfolds only after Luo can confer with the

village elders on the difficult task of hiring enough men to carry the coffin

over 10 miles of snowy terrain-known by custom as “the road home”-so that his

father will find his home in the next world. Sanhetun, the village in North

China where Luo was born, is later seen in all its spring glory when the young

Zhao Di catches a glimpse of her future husband and loses her heart forever.

But the courtship is far from easy. Changyu, as an educated

teacher, belongs to a higher class than Zhao Di, and China is still governed by

the rules of arranged marriages. To complicate matters further, Changyu is

taken away by the agents of the Cultural Revolution and returned to the city

for political reeducation. Zhao Di waits for what seems to be an eternity for

his return and then, feverish from the cold, sets out for the city to find him.

We know, of course, that everything will end happily for the two lovers as far

as the consummation of their passion is concerned. But the bare bones of the

plot and the incidental historical and sociological details do not begin to

convey the extraordinary sensuousness of a young girl consumed kinetically by

love.

Rumor has it that Zhang Ziyi, the young lead in The Road Home and one of the co-stars in

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , has

replaced the glorious Gong Li in Mr. Yimou’s affections. I can believe this

after watching how the middle portions of The

Road Home have been framed and edited so as to make Zhang Ziyi’s character

the point-of-view determinant, no matter how limiting her vantage point may be

in processing information about the man she loves. Her future husband’s point

of view, unlike hers, is never central to the narrative. When he disappears

into the city, he ceases to exist as a presence except for the sorrow on her

face. In the long history of the cinema around the world, there have been many

love letters written on the screen from directors to their actress-mistresses,

real and vicarious. But seldom if ever before has a love affair been wrapped

inside the rhetoric of a social document.

Hence Zhang Yimou’s published statement about what The Road Home is really about: “This is

a film about love, about family and about the love between the members of a

family …. In the past, artists have tended to deal with this period in a rather

serious and analytic way, but I prefer to use more poetic and romantic methods

to tell this pure and simple love story. It was just this kind of true love which

enabled us to survive such difficult periods in our past. In the film, the

elements of history and present-day reality are both grounded in the notion of

study. At the same time, the story shows the attitude of country people towards

learning-essentially, an attitude of respect and veneration. All of this brings

to mind the ways that Chinese people have reacted to ‘learning’ at two

particular moments in our modern history. The first of these was several

decades ago. For purely political reasons, learning was cruelly devalued.

Intellectuals suffered physical abuse and were made to ‘disappear.’ The second

of these is today. Everyone now understands the principle that knowledge equals

power, and yet so many of us are ultra-materialistic and obsessed with money.

Learning is once again being devalued. I want to use this film to take a fresh

look at these fundamental issues in Chinese society and history.”

The last thing I want to do is charge Mr. Yimou with bad

faith. Yet his statement seems derived from the platitudinous press conferences

at film festivals, where every film is reduced to a politically correct sermon.

To be sure, Mr. Yimou’s film generates a powerful feeling of vindication for

the dead teacher when dozens of his former students materialize from nowhere to

carry his coffin to its final resting place. But we have seen very little of

what he has done as a teacher in his lifetime. The heart and emotional core of

the film rest in the love story recorded almost entirely on the ever-yearning

expressions of the romantic heroine, a Juliet whose Romeo is seen mostly from

afar. There is a metaphysical gravity, nonetheless, to the demonstration that

the young grow old and die-in this instance, after a life well-lived and

dedicated, at the end as in the beginning, to the common good. Still, Zhang

Ziyi is a knockout, though I doubt she will ever be capable of Gong Li’s

stoical complexity.

He Pays but She Rules

Wayne Wang’s The

Center of the World , from a screenplay by Ellen Benjamin Wong, based on a

story by Mr. Wang, Miranda July, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, belongs to a

subgenre of the soft-core sex film in which the male calls all the shots and

the female is either willingly or unwillingly subjugated. Mr. Wang and his

several writing collaborators have pulled a major switch here by resisting the

sentimental temptation to redeem and purify a prostitute and her long-term john

in the happy and profitable manner of Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990), with Julia Roberts as a Cinderella from the

gutter and Richard Gere as the Prince from the executive suite. The Center of the World is something

else again, though it begins in the traditional way with Peter Sarsgaard’s

Richard Longman, a well-heeled computer whiz, picking up Molly Parker’s

Florence, a nightclub stripper, and offering her a week’s well-paid “vacation”

in a plush Vegas hotel. She imposes peculiarly restrictive ground rules:

separate rooms, no penetration and no kissing on the lips. Richard readily

agrees, and Florence embarks on a tantalizing program of intermediate

titillation.

From the outset, Richard is a less interesting character

than Florence: He spends his spare time obsessively playing video games that

reflect his more boring, cut-throat business activities, which have made him

financially successful but have left him emotionally immature. Florence does

not have to go so far as to become Richard’s dominatrix, but she leaves no

doubt about which of them is in charge of the nighttime activities that begin

and end at the same hours every night. All his life, Richard has been terrified

of making a commitment to a woman, and now, in a strange way, a commitment is

being imposed upon him: He must be ready every night for Florence’s skillful

caresses. The cumulative effect of this enforced discipline is to make him

think that he has fallen in love with Florence and is prepared to settle down

with her.

But here comes the switch: She will have none of it. As she

patiently explains to Richard, since he has paid for her services, she is a

whore, and that’s all she wants to be. It is the way of the world for Richard

to have money and for Florence to need it, and her job is to build up his

desires until her artful final surrender, when she permits him to kiss her lips

and penetrate her. It is all part of Florence’s erotic extravaganza, and there

is no extra charge. Richard is bereft for a time, but he finally reconciles

himself to his role and hers and wants everything to continue on the same

terms.

Ms. Parker gives a remarkable performance on all cylinders,

and her character emerges as neither a tease nor a slut, but as a curiously

rational and self-possessed creature of her time and place. She can always draw

the line between what she will do and what she will not-yet a brief interlude

with Jerri (Carla Gugino), a Vegas-showgirl friend, suggests that Florence is

not entirely a stranger to same-sex hanky-panky. But the most stunning scene of

all is one in which Florence starts out with absolutely no makeup and proceeds,

in one take, to transform herself from an unadorned female to a professional

temptress. It is one of the most striking demonstrations I have ever seen on

the screen of sex as theater.