About the beauty and changing times of China. It's a love story too.
This may be Zhang Jingchu's best and most challenging role yet, and it comes from very early in her career. When she is given a starring role (Night and Fog, Red River) she really shines, seeming less remarkable when she plays a supporting role (Overheard, Protégé, Beast Stalker). Here she plays a character who goes from a teenager to old age over the course of a film that spans more than four decades. These kinds of roles come along every so often for actors and actresses, their success relying quite a bit on makeup—which in this case is pretty good for such a low budget film—but the challenge, one which Zhang seems to rise to, is also to convince us that the character has grown and changed along with the events of the film.
Zhang is probably weakest as a teenager, not because she doesn't look the part or do it well, it's more like she is so good it's a little annoying. She's going at 150 miles an hour and is just a little too charming. We then see her as: a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality amidst a conservative society; a dutiful wife in an arranged marriage; a middle-aged woman coming to grips with the changes in her marriage and society; and finally an older woman dealing with tragedy and a society that seems to have fully left her behind. She is better and more convincing with each progression.
Of course it helps when playing this kind of role if the film is good, and this one is beautiful. Filmed in the Yunnan Province of China, the cinematography is breathtaking, the story a poignant one. The film begins in the mid 1960s when the spirit of the Communist Revolution was still high and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution hadn't kicked in. Zhang plays bus ticket girl, Li Chunfen. The bus driver, played wonderfully by comedian exploring serious film roles Wei Fan, though much older than Li, has a crush on her (like almost everybody else). Li's affection, however, is for a frequent passenger, Dr. Liu, who's been transferred to Yunnan because his family was rich and he's a bit of an intellectual, qualities that are increasingly suspect as the Cultural Revolution kicks in. The doctor has been sent to a hard labor camp and when Li sneaks out to meet him one night and is caught, things change dramatically for her. She is forced into an arranged marriage with the bus driver who uses his clout with the local party leaders to help her avoid a fate worse than the surface level crime of losing face and bringing shame upon herself.
I don't want to give a complete play by play of the storyline, suffice to say The Road is not only a personal journey and a love story, a really touching one, it turns out. It's also an educational story for those of us unfamiliar, as a portrait of changing times in China, lovingly told. The "Old Days" are seen as both good and bad, depending on your place in society or point of view, but most noteworthy is how both sides are presented without judgement. It's a tone poem, an ode, to the complexity that is recent Chinese history. The film takes us from a time when a sense of community and shared values were alive, through the violence and upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and into modern times where some celebrate the loosening of a moral structure and others remember it fondly. And it does it without any political agenda. It's beautiful. Bravo.
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