Learning through recitation, the students in a remote northern Chinese village repeat after their teacher: ”Know the past, know the present.” On its own terms, the aphorism is politically and philosophically faultless, neutral. But coming from the accomplished, poetically inclined, tradition-minded Chinese director Zhang Yimou in ”The Road Home,” the adage resonates with sentiment. This is a gentle, engaging narrative of constancy and devotion against all odds, both natural and bureaucratic, in which the past represents enduring family values and customs; Mao-era hardships are hinted at too. The present, meanwhile, appears as a harsh landscape rocky with political and personal losses.
The title refers to a route traveled in death as well as in life: The schoolteacher’s adult son (Sun Honglei), now a city worker, makes a rare trip home following his father’s death, where his grief-stricken old mother (Zhao Yuelin) wants her husband buried the traditional way, his coffin carried along the road by local men. While the son tries to modernize his mother’s plans, he remembers stories he has heard of his parents’ courtship, when his father (Zheng Hao), newly traveling the same road, glimpsed his mother, and the beautiful young woman (Zhang Ziyi) fell in love with the handsome young man at first sight.
The director moves from a black-and-white present in bitter, snowy winter to a past in richly colored CinemaScope, an ode to changing countryside seasons. (He cites the visual elegance of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s films as an influence.) Mostly, though, all Zhang Yimou has to do is point the camera at Zhang Ziyi, ablaze in a pink jacket and red scarf. The actress made ”The Road Home” before she became famous as the radiant firebrand in ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But even here, her hair braided in two pigtails and tied with apple-green string, her glow is visible, lighting the road to stardom.