Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Zhang Yimou has spent the past few years in self-imposed exile from the vibrant colors of his best-known films, so it’s unsurprising that The Road Home begins in a frigid rural China rendered in blue-tinted black-and-white. Narrator Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns home because of the demise of his father, a schoolteacher who died while away from the village. His mother insists that an old, and now seldom-practiced, Chinese custom be followed: Her husband must be carried home by men on foot, so that his soul doesn’t get lost. This might seem the prelude to a grim—or perhaps blackly comic—undertaking, save for one sly clue: The camera notes a poster on the wall of the old woman’s house, one that shows two young lovers on a big, doomed ship.

Yes, The Road Home is Zhang’s answer to Titanic, a tale of romance on the cusp of disaster. (The film mentions the cataclysm only in passing and never utters its name: Maoism.) Soon, the narrative has shifted into flashback, and the black-and-white has been replaced by rich reds, yellows, and greens, most of them from nature. The images are as simple, appealing, and universal as the movie’s essential plot: Smitten by new schoolteacher Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), 18-year-old Zhao Di (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ingénue Zhang Ziyi) does everything in her power to attract his attention: She makes her best dishes for the men building the new schoolhouse and switches to using the well closest to the construction site. Di’s blind mother sees what’s going on more clearly than does 20-year-old Changyu, whose schooling and urban background are no guarantee of insight. Then, just as Changyu begins to return Di’s interest, he’s summoned to the city for questioning. Di waits for him faithfully but with increasing agitation; only when she fixes up the abandoned schoolhouse do the villagers realize that true love has arrived in a place where arranged marriages are the norm.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Although composer San Bao’s flute motif intentionally (if playfully) recalls James Horner’s Titanic score, The Road Home actually owes more—as Zhang has noted in interviews—to the work of Abbas Kiarostami. Rural settings and charmingly stubborn protagonists are both mainstays of Kiarostami’s films, even if no Iranian filmmaker would go so far as to tell a story predicated on a woman’s amorous desire. In China, however, the unchallengeable force is not Islamic law but the Communist Party; Bao Shi’s script never explains what political offense (imagined or otherwise) has separated Changyu from Di, but the year is 1957, when Mao began his “anti-rightist” campaign.

In outline, The Road Home resembles Not One Less, Zhang’s previous effort, which also featured a rural schoolhouse and a plucky teenage heroine. But this most recent film is sweeter and more sentimental—both qualities justified by the story’s essential tenderness. The director may have included the puckish Titanic references to undercut the movie’s flowery tendencies, but otherwise he indulges them. Zhang calls the film “a poetic narrative…very carefully framed in Cinemascope images.” It’s both intimate and epic, with sequences whose inspirations range from Eisensteinian montage to today’s handheld, quick-cut mode.

Visually, though, the film’s most notable aspect is its color. Cinematographer Hou Yong provides the sort of rich hues Zhang hasn’t allowed himself since 1995’s Shanghai Triad, his last film with actress Gong Li, his former muse. Although it’s too soon to speculate that Zhang Ziyi will replace Gong, The Road Home certainly contemplates its star with unabashed delight, whether in close-up or slo-mo, action or repose. It may be his new leading lady, the film’s love story, or his return to period narratives, but Zhang has recaptured the sheer beauty that characterizes his early work—and that’s well worth celebrating with a closing the-heart-will-go-on ballad.

In remaking ’70s auto-theft flick Gone in 60 Seconds, director Dominic Sena took a brisk, jaunty approach to a story whose only essential element was the high-speed car chase. Critics called it “brainless”—which was objectively true but apparently stung nonetheless. Almost exactly a year later, Sena is back with a movie, Swordfish, that is just full of brainy stuff: global conspiracies, computer geniuses, international high finance, counterterrorist tactics, and more. The result is really brainless—and tasteless to boot.

“They make shit,” announces John Travolta in the opening sequence, showily shot with a handheld camera in extremely shallow focus. It’s quickly revealed that the Battlefield Earth star, who plays a character called Gabriel, is talking about Hollywood. Gabriel denounces American movies’ lack of realism and then walks into a scene of impressive unbelievability: He’s in the midst of looting a bank and has strapped explosives to some two dozen hostages. The movie is about to flash back to explain how the cocky, ruthless Gabriel has arrived at this moment, but first the money shot: a long pan of a slo-mo explosion, carnage that plays like a stop-action view of an opening flower.

Then it’s “four days earlier” and Swordfish introduces us to its real hero: superhacker Stanley (Hugh Jackman), who’s been sentenced to a computerless existence for sabotaging a nefarious FBI program that’s snooping on us all. Stanley’s recruiting agent is one of the mysterious Gabriel’s mysterious operatives, Ginger (Jackman’s X-Men co-star Halle Berry). She does most of her enlisting with short red skirts, lacy lingerie, and less, but it’s not sex that lures Stanley to Gabriel’s supersecret operation; it’s the possibility of rescuing his 10-year-old daughter, Holly (Camryn Grimes), who seems to be trapped backstage at Boogie Nights, living in a dissolute L.A. household full of pornographic props. Hot on the heels of Stanley—or Gabriel, or Ginger—is Roberts (Don Cheadle), who’s some sort of cop. Somehow allied with Gabriel is a U.S. senator, Reisman (Sam Shepard), who issues hard-boiled commands from locations that feign to be inside the Beltway.

It turns out that Gabriel has located a stash of leftover DEA cash that—thanks to the miracle of compound interest—is now worth $9.5 billion. Summoning Stanley to the bacchanalian rave club that always seems to feature in movies like this, the master villain explains that he wants the master hacker to transfer the money to Gabriel’s account. (For motivation, Gabriel simultaneously orders a gun to Stanley’s head and one of his bimbos to the hacker’s crotch.) If Stanley can accomplish the transfer—and who would reckon he can’t?—then Gabriel will be awash in funds without any messy human contact. Yet the criminal mastermind insists on going to the bank anyway. Computer hacking is hi-tech and all that, but it just doesn’t compare to the fun of strapping explosives to innocent hostages.

Misogynist whenever it can’t muster the energy to be fully misanthropic, Swordfish actually presents the repulsive Gabriel as a sort of trickster demigod, with a plan for combating anti-American terrorism that will probably draw cheers at the movie’s Marine-base screenings. Its lurid politics aside, the film is a grab bag of poses borrowed from recent action flicks, neo-noir, and other macho modes: Guy Ritchie alter ego Vinnie Jones plays one of Gabriel’s goons, there’s a pool scene that aspires to Showgirls-style sleaze, and the final helicopter chase sequence is something Jackie Chan would have staged for one of his Police Story movies if only he could have afforded it. As for the film’s feeble attempts to link fast computers, hot sex, and thumping techno—the last courtesy of Paul Oakenfold—see Hackers, Strange Days, The Net, and many others, including the two-month-old Exit Wounds.

That much-more-appealing jumble of Hollywood, Hong Kong, and Silicon Valley was produced by Joel Silver, as was Swordfish. The Silver film that most closely resembles this one, however, is The Matrix, another cyber/action mystifier that posits worlds within worlds. Screenwriter Skip Woods no doubt thought he was being clever in devising an overstuffed international caper whose identity-hopping antihero compares himself to Houdini. But Sena would have been smart to stick with scripts that emphasize popular mechanics over paranoid intrigues. CP