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Hum 3: Film Principles
Bong Eliab
Mass Communication Department
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University

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Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei; Directed by Zhang Yimou
Approx 100 minutes

 Every time the word home is discussed, the event brings me tears because it evokes colorful memories of the past.  Maybe the Filipino word “tahanan” is more appropriate to start with.  It comes from the word “tahan” which means to stop crying, (v.g. tumatahan na ang bata sa pag-iyak), it means to settle down, to let the intense and emotional experience sink in.  And when we say “diyan ako tumatahan”, it brings us to a deeper understanding of home.  It is the center, the focal point where we have our roots.  Or when we say “at home ako sa iyo o tahanan kita” -- we perhaps mean I am very comfortable to be with you.  G. K. Chesterton once said that his wife is his home, a home sweet home, that goes with him wherever he goes.  And Robert Frost says that a real home is a place/situation that accepts you as you are anytime, anywhere.

I have been changing homes for the past three decades of my life due to the nature of my vocation and ministry. And every time I change home, the painful tears of letting go have to be overcome. And the pulsating joys of discovering new friends, new homes have to be cherished.   I think the journey, our journey in this life, has all the pains and the joys in the road home.  This is I think what the director shares with us in this movie. It will be hard to name another director -- Kubrick, perhaps -- who has created so many masterpieces or near-masterpieces with so few lifetime films. Zhang Yimou starts with richly sensual tales (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern), moves to sociopolitical epics (To Live, The Story of Qui Ju), and then here, in 1999, presents what may be called a "domestic epic."

For the first time in many years, a fairly young middle-aged engineer Luo Yusheng returns to Sanhetun, the home village of his birth in North China right after his father's death. The district mayor phones to tell him that his father died suddenly, and Yusheng is rushing back to be with his mother. He finds her grief-stricken mother keeping a sad vigil outside the decrepit village schoolhouse His mother insists that all the age-old local customs and rituals be observed, including weaving the funeral cloth on the village loom and hand-carrying the body many miles back from the city hospital morgue to the village so the deceased will know "the road home." The mayor hopes that Yusheng will persuade his mother to be more 'reasonable' - for example, to allow the coffin to be driven rather than carried. He fears that even if he could find men willing to carry the coffin many miles through the winter snows, there would not be enough of them. Most of the young men of Sanhetun - like Yusheng himself - have left the village to work in faraway cities.

As he watches his mother weave the funeral cloth, Yusheng reflects on what he's heard of his parents' courtship. Everyone in the village knows the story of her parents’ relations.  He relates the story of how his parents -- Zhao Di, an 18-year-old farm girl and Luo Changyu, a somewhat 20-year-old teacher (who arrived from East Gate) sent to the village by the government -- met and fell in love in 1955. His mother living with her blind and widowed grandmother is considered the prettiest girl in Sanhetun, and she sets her sights on the handsome newcomer as soon as she sees him. When Changyu teams up with the village men to build a new schoolhouse (and Zhao Di, following tradition, is nominated to weave the red cloth that will be wound around its rafters), she always hopes that Changyu will pick her dishes from the lunch-table provided communally by the women. And when the new school is opened, Zhao Di takes to drawing water from the little-used old well - because that brings her close to the schoolhouse and gives her the chance of passing Changyu as he accompanies pupils home.

Her efforts to attract the teacher's attention are successful. By the time it is Zhao Di and her mother's turn to invite Changyu to eat in their home, he is shyly showing his interest. And so it is a huge blow to Zhao Di when men arrive from the city to take Changyu away with them for questioning. Changyu snatches a moment to say goodbye to Zhao Di, promising to return as soon as possible and giving her a hairpin as a small gift. During Changyu's protracted absence, Zhao Di goes to the schoolhouse to clean it up and repair its paper windows. The rest of the villagers realize that she and Changyu are in love. There is much talk, because arranged marriages are still the norm then. This was Sanhetun's first "love match".

Changyu is away for a long time. One day he is rumored to be due back, but didn't return. Zhao Di waits for him so long she becomes feverish and then sets off through the snow and mist to look for him in the city. She is found collapsed in the snow and brought home with a bad chill. She wakes two days later to find that Changyu has come back, and has sat by her bedside for hours. It turns out that Changyu has sneaked away without permission from some political tribunal in the city specifically to see her. His disobedience is punished when he goes back to the city, and he and Zhao Di are kept apart for two more years. When he finally comes back along 'The Road Home" to Sanhetun, Zhao Di is there to greet him. And they are never separated again.

Back in the present, Yusheng realises that his mother's wishes for Changyu's funeral must be respected. He gives the mayor 5000 yuan to hire 32 men to carry the coffin in shifts and to keep them plied with cigarettes and rice-wine. But when the day of the funeral arrives, more than a hundred of Changyu's former pupils turn up to carry his coffin, and none of them will accept payment. The coffin is laid to rest near the old well, overlooking the schoolhouse.

Next day Zhao Di takes Yusheng to the schoolhouse (due to be rebuilt next spring) and reminds him that his father always hoped that he would succeed him as the village teacher. And before he leaves to go back to his job in the city, Yusheng spends one day teaching the local children in the old building.

Most of the movie centers on the earlier love story. It's a shame that the more recent "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" made it to Davao City first, because Zhang Ziyi, the spitfire young girl of the action flick, is much more incredible in her debut in this movie, aged 20. The simplicity and transparency of her emotions, the incredible beauty of her face, are captivating. There is no sex or nudity, not even a kiss, in this intensely romantic film; and the landscape, seasons, and light -- the sound of vegetables being chopped, the chanting of children's voices in school -- are as much stars as Ziyi. This movie is a gorgeous and moving piece of work.  It moves me everytime I view it, not only because of the utmost love and commitment that persons can make in their lifetime, but because of the silent yet effective character the teacher has in our society.



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03 December 2004