The great Chinese director Zhang Yimou is best known to Western audiences for his superb wuxia trilogy: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. This trio of films, with their spectacular colors, brawny action sequences, and breathtaking set pieces, has earned him a reputation as an "epic" director in the truest sense of the word.

Audiences who marvel at the scope and scale of his more famous works may be surprised to learn that The Road Home, a Yimou film made barely two years earlier, displays none of the spectacle and melodrama for which he has grown so famous. In fact, this 2000 work is powerful precisely because it eschews the massive palette and epic flavor of his later works for the sake of a smaller, more personal story.

The film begins in modern-day China, when Luo Yusheng, a young city-dweller, returns to the village of his youth to help his mother, Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi), cope with his father's recent death. At the request of the local townsfolk, he tries to convince her to forgo the tradition of carrying his father's body back to the village by hand—a custom that will assure the dead man's spirit of finding its way home. Although profoundly grateful to the deceased man for a lifetime spent laboring as the village's lone schoolteacher, the locals are unable to comply with the widow's request.

Embarrassed by his predicament, the mayor confides to Luo that generations of young villagers have fled the harsh conditions of the town, drawn by the seeming prosperity of the surrounding cities. Over the years, their departure has robbed the town of the manpower necessary to perform the ceremony, and the mayor begs the young man to search for a way around his mother's intractable resolve.

As Luo works to convince his mother that her desires for a traditional burial procession are both unnecessary and impractical, he is reminded of his parents' unusual and inspiring courtship—a tale that is legendary in the village for its innocence, purity, and example of unwavering resolve in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In a long, brilliantly colored flashback, the burgeoning love between young Di and her beloved schoolteacher, Luo Changyu, is revealed—and, along with it, the deeper reason why she is so anxious for his remains to be transported along the long, hard country road: That road is part of their love story, an essential component of their courtship. Throughout the years of forced separation, its presence was the dusty, comforting thread that tied the two young lovers together. (In an unusual twist, Yimou shows the past in color and the present in black and white, rather than the other way around—the only obvious cultural commentary he allows himself.)

Experiencing the extraordinary power of Di and Luo's love once again, their son is reminded of the commitment and selflessness that lies at the root of all successful relationships. He decides to support his mother's wishes; the traditional journey will serve not only as a fitting endorsement of his father's life, but as the ultimate recognition of the deep and remarkable gift their love was to the village, to their son, and to each other. Challenged by that love, the villagers are driven to look beyond themselves and help Di achieve the closure she so desperately seeks.