A story within a story, "The Road Home" is bookended--in scenes shot in black and white that accentuate the stark winter landscape and the despair of a mourning widow--by an educated son's return to the rural village where he grew up upon the death of his schoolteacher father, who had gotten caught in a snowstorm while traveling to collect funds to build a new school. His mother requests that his father's body be carried by the villagers from the morgue to his resting place, per the old tradition, so that he will know his way home. The town mayor respects her and her husband's memory, but all the young people have left for the city, and the remaining townspeople are simply too old to make the journey.
While discussing this with his mother, the son flashes back, to the rhythm of his mother's creaky loom as she prepares the funeral cloth, to his parents' courtship decades before. In contrast to the opening scenes, their romance is photographed in vibrant color--it is summer now, and his young mother wears beautiful, bright clothing that captures his dad's eye. He is the new schoolteacher in the village, which has never had one before, and the first young man to attract her attention, despite her mother's warnings that their budding love is doomed because of his higher class.
At first she is not allowed to approach the schoolteacher directly, so she goes out of her way to just be in general vicinity, fetching water from the old well by the schoolhouse rather than the brand-new one, which is a much closer walk, and lingering on the road by which he walks his students home, arranging a "chance" meeting. In a scene that demonstrates the film's gentle humor, he endeavors to fetch water one afternoon when he notices that she's at the well. Having already filled her pails, she quickly empties them again in an effort to extend their encounter. Their finagling is ultimately futile, though, as another villager insists on fetching the water for the schoolteacher, whose objections comically border on physical confrontation.
Alas, just as their courtship begins, the schoolteacher is called back to the city for mysterious reasons, and in a scene that's as painful as the former was delightful, his beloved chases desperately after his horse-drawn cart with the dumplings she promised to make him for dinner wrapped in her favorite bowl. She trips, fracturing the pottery, which symbolizes her heart, and losing the hairpin that he gave her before she left. In the dead of winter, she waits by the roadside for his return, eventually landing herself in bed with pneumonia.
By now, the community recognizes her love--the first such occurrence in a society that arranges marriages--and summons the schoolteacher back to her side. He returns for just one night--he has left the city without permission--but promises to return. Two years later, he does, and he never leaves her side again.
Armed with their love story, the couple's grown son convinces surrounding villagers to help carry his father's corpse home on the road that has been so symbolic to his parents' relationship.
Playing his mother as a young woman, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's" Zhang Ziyi is positively luminous, adorable in her excited scurry home after seeing her true love for the first time but achingly passionate in her desperate pursuit when he leaves her. And director Zhang Yimou maintains a sense of innocence among the layers of meaning in the film's photography and mise-en-scene. What some might interpret as naïveté is rather nostalgia for a time when people still believed in love at first sight. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei, Zheng Hao, Zhao Yuelin, Li Bin and Chang Guifa. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Bao Shi. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Romance. Rated G. Running time: 90 min