Zhang Yimou followed his schoolroom drama Not One Less with this charming rural romance. The plot for this film could be neatly inscribed on a postage stamp – and by that, I mean to praise its elegance and simplicity.
The film begins in the present, and this section is shot in black-and-white. Luo rolls up in an incongruous four-wheel drive to his family property, somewhere in the boondocks, to help his mother make preparations for his father’s funeral. She insists that his body be carried home from the hospital in the old way; the son does not believe that such traditions could exist today, and certainly none of the villagers are willing.
The film then shifts into her recollection of her courtship, and here it changes into colour. As a young girl she is played by Zhang Ziyi, and indeed this is the film for which Zhang Yimou discovered her (and then in turn recommended her to Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger). She turns in a splendid performance as an aching teenager obsessed with the new schoolteacher (these days they’d call it stalking, but in this movie it’s awww, sweet, and reciprocated in kind). Her greatest hope is to make him the perfect mushroom dumpling, and her greatest tragedy is when she drops a basket of them down the hill (believe me, when those dumplings hit the ground, there won’t be a dry eye in your living room).
Nostalgia for a simpler China is writ in every sun-drenched frame (heck, even the icy snow looks nostalgic, in a hypothermia inducing kind of way); fabrics are vibrant, and everything is clean and fresh, all excusable in the knowledge that these are literally his mother’s memories of falling in love. You’ll feel a palpable sense of loss when the film returns to the present and the colour drains away once more.
The film’s final part covers the funeral, in which the village’s old schoolteacher finally does indeed take the road home. You’ll be left with a warm feeling of having watched a beautifully crafted and heartfelt film, and a strong urge to ring up your dad.