The Road Home (1999), directed by Zhang Yimou

Living in Israel has brought me in touch with many people whom I met earlier in my life. Let me explain. Firstly, many friends of my youth had a dream of ultimately living in the holiest place in the world and now many of them are actually living here. It is a retirement village in which no one is really retired. Everybody is redefining themselves in some way and connecting to the eternal past of the Jewish people, while at the same time living a vibrant present existence. Secondly, there are others whom I meet not because they are new immigrants in the land, but because they come to Israel to bury a loved one. It is a place for an ingathering of the exiles, those who are living and those who are not. When we come to Israel, we know we are coming home in a profound way. Watching The Road Home evokes comparisons to this Jewish sensibility but emerges from a Chinese tradition.

The title of the film The Road Home alludes to the journey of a man to his final resting place. Specifically it refers to the tradition of carrying the coffin to the grave so that the deceased “doesn’t lose his way.” This is a movie about deeply held traditions that both animate and connect people over the span of many generations, traditions that link them to the past and to the future.

The film opens as an urban man is returning to the rural village of his birth to bury his father, a revered teacher who brought wisdom to many generations of youngsters. Looking at the photo of his parents evokes a retrospective of the courtship of his father and mother many years ago. It is a romance based not so much on physical attraction, although there is that element, but mostly on a shared understanding of life and a common destiny.

After this poetically charged story of courtship, the film returns to the preparations for the funeral, which will require a march of several miles to the burial site in the midst of a blinding snow storm. Everybody in the village wants to participate in this tradition of escorting the dead, especially when it is a way to show respect for a beloved teacher. Their affection for him is palpable as we watch the villagers vie for the opportunity to carry the bier despite the inclement weather.

As a final mark of respect and tribute for his father, the son, on the day after the funeral, teaches a lesson in the village schoolhouse which is about to be demolished. He stands before the children, echoing the instruction of his father. The subtitles emblazoned on the screen reveal clearly the life lessons imparted by his father: “In everything there is a purpose. Know the past. Know respect for your elders.” By encouraging the students to appreciate and value the past, he assures them of a meaningful present and future. The teacher is the glue that binds the generations.

Torah values are ubiquitous in the movie. There is the value of respect for elders, the value of respect for tradition, the value of a loving relationship founded on common values, and the value of finding meaning in adversity. Ecclesiastes tells us that “it is better to visit a house of mourning than a house of feasting, for that is the end of all men and the living will lay it to his heart (7:2).” In the case of The Road Home, the loss of a loved one becomes the road to greater self-understanding.

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