Monday, July 29, 2002

The Story of Arranging a Chance Encounter

The summer my Mom died a sapling began growing in my parents' neighbors' yard. The little tree was the same as the one I played under as a kid and thus the neighbors did something I thought was more than a little nice and more than a little poignant- they let the tree grow in memory of my Mom. In three short years that tree really shot up- from a little shoot that you see growing all around carefully and not so carefully manicured yards, to something that clearly was a tree.

A couple of weeks ago the neighbors decided to dress the tree up a bit by surrounding it with one of those circular brick decorative borders nicely spruced up by flowers. Unfortunately I was over at my Dad's the other day and noticed the tree was gone. Turned out it wasn't a sapling but an offshoot from the original tree's root system. Thus the work around the root accidentally killed the tree. Some things as nice as they seem, more perfectly timed than can be planned, symbolically uplifting, just aren't meant to be.

It's that kind of bittersweet melancholy that is at the heart of one of the most beautiful cinematic love stories I have ever seen, Chinese director Zhang Yimou's gorgeously told (and shot) The Road Home (Wode Fuqin Muqin). The movie features the startling star debut performance of Zhang Ziyi who became known in this country for her next movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

The movie begins with a Chinese businessman returning home to tend to matters after he learns that his father has died. He discovers that his mother has requested that her husband's body be returned to town not by car but rather honoring an old tradition of having the casket carried by hand so that the spirit doesn't forget the way home. Since most of the town's young men have left for the city, the task of carrying the body over the mountains seems like an impossible wish to fulfill for those remaining.

Most of the movie is a flashback of the mother and father's meeting. Ziyi plays the young wife to be and she gives a subtlety hypnotic performance. Some of you may have heard of an old American actress from the 1950's known as Marilyn Monroe (believe it or not she was even before my time!). I doubt any of you have watched her movies but those of you who have probably wouldn't argue with me when I say we really haven't seen an actress quite like her since she died.

I think most red blooded males would agree that Marilyn was an attractive and sexy actress who was easy on the eyes. But beautiful Hollywood actresses are (and were) a dime a dozen. What made Monroe such an American icon went beyond her looks- there was something transcendent that leaps off the screen. Watch one of her movies, and as bad as some of them are, you just can't take your eyes off of her. There's the vulnerability thing going but beyond that there is someone who is so open, both joyful and sad, that makes her absolutely captivating.

Call Ziyi the Chinese Marilyn. There isn't anything you can pinpoint in The Road Home that would make you say it is a brilliant performance in a simple little love story but through her expressions, her body language, she absolutely melts one's heart. The narrator/son informs us that in China during that time arranged marriages were the norm and that no one got married based on falling in love (and that is what makes his parents' story worth telling). At the heart of the movie is the wonderful way Ziyi expresses that wonderful rush of falling in love- how she shyly tries to arrange a moment when the man she has fallen in love with at first sight, will just have to notice her. After catching his eye she tries to determine his interest in her through a cooking ritual. The town's men are building a new school building and the town's women fix the men lunch every day. If he chooses her dish it means that his heart shares in the same feelings as her own.

The stunning Chinese countryside provides the backdrop for the wonderful little love story. There aren't any major revelations, no earth shaking insights in this movie. It is unabashedly sentimental and the plot device of telling the story through the eyes of a son burying one parent while worrying about the heartbreak of the other parent gives the movie a sad arching overview that reminds us that as inspiring as it is, love ultimately is the saddest feeling of all.

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