Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Road Home

This post follows criteria, with a major focus on symbolism.

Yesterday, we watched Yimou Zhang's award-winning 1999 film The Road Home, originally titled wŏde fùqin mŭqin, which is literally translated as "My Father and Mother." The screenplay was adapted by author Bao Shi from his original novel entitled Remembrance. Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, who played young Zhao Di, was only twenty years old when she made her cinematic debut in this movie. Needless to say, she received great praise for her performance. As our presenters told us, Zhang tends to focus his works on female characters, and this movie was no exception. He, too, was well received  by the audience due to the visual decisions he made during the filming process. In this post, I will touch on some of the symbolism we covered in class along with my take on the representation of colour and its cultural ties to Asia.

Rated G

As mentioned above, we covered quite a few symbols in class. Not only did groups discuss physical objects like the loom, barrette, banner, food, and others, but actions and activities such as cooking, fetching water, repairing various objects, et cetera. While watching the film, I chose to take notes on the bowl and how it represented hope (a tad obvious, and ever-so-slightly clichéd, but worth analysis all the same). Worksheets were turned in at the end of class so I cannot reference mine here, but I do remember that the first time we observe the bowl is when Di cooks a delicious-looking meal for the teacher in the hopes that he will chose her dish. When she learns that the workmen allow the teacher to pick from the table first, Di is sure to make her bowl stand out by placing it at the head and pushing the others away. [As as side note, when Zhang filmed the men approaching the food, the choice to omit their faces and simply show their moving torsos was brilliant. See the trailer below to view part of that scene. *gush*] After this event, the teacher comes to dinner at Di's house. She asks if he recognizes the pattern of the bowl from when he was helping to build the school. He, adorably, strives to remember, but it is clear that he did not eat from her bowl. Here, the object does not simply signify hope, but Di herself. She wants to appear 'appetizing' in the eyes of the teacher, as though all of her worth depends on how much he enjoys her ability to cook. Before I get too much into the feminist framework, though...this is repetition of symbol. Formalist FTW!

Later still, when Di makes dumplings for the teacher and he does not come by right away to eat them, she sits down in the doorway to wait, shedding the bulbs of onions or garlic—along with her hope—into a different bowl. When he is taken away to the city, Di wraps the bowl of dumplings in cloth (as if to insulate their relationship) and takes off after the him. She falls, breaking the ornate bowl and sobbing over their shattered love. Her mother has it repaired by a workman (which is one of my favourite scenes, actually), and we see Di tear up at the reformation of the object that symbolizes her faith in their relationship. One of my groupmates surfaced the idea that the visible stitches on the bowl's cracks symbolize the difficulties of love and the effort required to keep it going.

This concludes the framework with development of symbol. Now, for something we haven't covered in class...

Broken bowl. :( Note the red jacket sleeve with yellow design.

The Road Home is gorgeous, especially when you consider the colouring. Zhang's penchant for using long, empty shots brought to my attention the beautiful landscape. A lot of the non-black and white/negative space shots take place in late summer/early autumn, where Di is a tiny red smudge standing out against the yellow-leaved trees and golden wheat fields. I began to recognize a pattern: the red banner woven to bring luck to the new school building; Di's jacket and scarf; the yellow rice paper spread across the windows of the school and Di's scarlet paper cuttings hanging from the rafters; the gifted barrette. After we finished watching the film, the presenter that focused on Chinese art mentioned that red is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution (which has had a huge impact on all of Zhang's works) and yellow is typically reserved for the emperor. Why, then, force these two together? Perhaps to show the contrast between the royal class and the people who fought under Mao? In our culture, red is a symbol of anger, passion, blood, danger, and even communism. It was difficult to catch because the scene was in monochrome, but a Soviet Union flag was hanging in the school when Di and her son went to visit one last time. Yet, in Chinese culture—among others—red represents happiness. Check out this section on Wikipedia dedicated to the colour red in Imperial China: click here. Yellow is reminiscent of the sun, gold, and pleasurable thoughts. It, too, plays an important role in Asian society—especially Chinese. Click here for another Wiki article on the subject. The most interesting bit of information I came across that possibly pertains to this film is that different colours represent the 'five' different seasons in Chinese culture; yellow symbolizes the fifth, which is the end of summer. A large part of this film took place during this specific time in the calendar.

A very artistic trailer. You have to love the musical score.

Now, this is the fun part. At least for me. If you've read my other blog post on the movie Stoker, then you already know that it was directed by South Korean-born Park Chan-wook. I mentioned that he used extreme colour saturation throughout the film, and while that was optically stunning, I did not write about the fact that he used a lot of yellows and reds. These vivid splashes of pigmentation pop against the prevalent earth tones and are used, for the most part, to draw the viewer's attention to important objects. An exception in this movie from the previous equation, however, is that red sometimes does represent blood...on a literal level. Chan-wook also directed (and wrote) the Korean film Oldboy, in which he also used the two colours...although arguably not to the same extent.

Stoker (left) photoset taken from Tumblr, Oldboy (right) photos found via Google.
Remember to click the image for a larger, crisper view.

That's some the symbolism for you. As for the movie itself...I found it refreshing. It was nice to get lost in the memory of a cute love story and appreciate the film for what it was without the distraction of too much drama. We know Di and the teacher end up together because of the opening scenes, so it was charming to witness how their relationship formed, even if it became a little tragic because of his death. I also enjoyed the dichotomy of the black and white v. colour scenes and acknowledge the irony of the blizzard. The hints Zhang dropped concerning the Cultural Revolution piqued my curiosity as a history support. I would certainly recommend it to a friend...and an enemy, for that matter. I do not tend discriminate when it comes to good cinema. ;)

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  1. Another fabulous post. I literally have chills right now from your analysis of the use of color in this movie. This is such an interesting essay! I like the connection to other films as well. You do a good job describing the visual appeal of the movie, as well as its charm as a love story.

    1. Thank you, Mimi! I found the history of Asia's colour fascinating - it's the HS support in me. :P