Getting Home

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2007, 12:00am

Starring: Zhao Benshan, Guo Degang, Wu Jun, Song Dandan

Director: Zhang Yang

Category: IIA (Putonghua)

Chinese cinema has never taken to the road movie with the gusto of Hollywood, so the genre provides raw terrain for director-writer Zhang Yang. With Getting Home he imbues the dusty highways of western China with his eye for the offbeat combined with a heartfelt but unsentimental faith in humanity, qualities that illuminated his breakthrough feature, Shower (1999).

Yunnan and Sichuan are the locales navigated by middle-aged migrant worker Zhao (Zhao Benshan) on an unusual journey for both himself and the viewer. He's making good a promise to escort a friend to the latter's home in the Three Gorges region, quite a distance from the Shenzhen site where they were last employed. It's an excursion not dissimilar to those undertaken regularly by tens of thousands of peasants, but for one detail: Zhao's friend is dead, and it's no easy task transporting a corpse across China on a limited budget.

That's the premise for an extremely black, although felicitously non-morbid, comedy-drama that uses the road genre to take a by no means uncritical look at contemporary Chinese society.

The episodic narrative allows Zhao to encounter a variety of characters who represent some of the best and worst the wild, wild west has to offer. There are the cynical and cruel, along with those whose integrity remains intact.

The film's style is as technically unadorned as the protagonist. Running counter to the deceptive simplicity is Dou Peng's unnecessarily lush and emotive score that threatens to break the mood of many a scene.

The script (co-written by Zhang and Wang Yao) comes dangerously close to tying up the story's loose ends with a false sense of closure, but pulls back just in time, leaving matters open-ended albeit with hints that everything will turn out fine.

The vignettes involve an array of cameos by mainland stars, the most familiar to Hongkongers being Hu Jun (Lan Yu), who delivers an over-the-top lovelorn truck driver. More affecting is a gang leader (Guo Degang) with a misplaced but humorous sense of righteousness as he robs Zhao's bus; a beauty parlour proprietress (Zhang Di) who takes pity on the destitute traveller; and an elderly landowner (veteran Hong Kong actor-director Wu Ma, in his best role in years) who stages his own funeral and so has special empathy for the protagonist's predicament.

Holding it together is a wonderful performance by Zhao Benshan, whose large frame and soulful eyes possess grace and dignity even when performing slapstick. The sequence where he rolls a giant tyre down a winding road, his chum's cadaver ensconced within, marks him as a worthy heir to a cinematic tradition embodied by Oliver Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle.

Getting Home opens today