Zhang Yang’s “Getting Home” – 2007 NYAFF Review

The funny and poignant “Getting Home” is one of the most delightful offerings in this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. Mainland Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan’s beautiful comic performance grounds the film as he – and we – travel through the Chinese countryside, encountering all manner of humanity and witnessing the changes to the landscape. Expertly shot by Yu Lik-wai, Jia Zhang-ke’s regular cinematographer, the film’s plot is as simple as it is evocative. Zhao (Benshan), a middle-aged factory worker, has taken it upon himself to carry out his promise to his recently-deceased friend Liu (Hong Qiwen), to return Liu’s body to his family home. Armed with only a small monetary stipend provided by their employer, Zhao travels with his dead friend by his side, carries Liu on his back, or when traveling by bus, puts sunglasses on him and disguises him as a drunken companion. It may at first seem like “Weekend at Bernie’s” as directed by Jia, but Zhang Yang’s film gradually reveals deeper, much more resonant themes than its premise suggests.

Zhao transforms, and is transformed by, the various people he meets during his road-movie odyssey. These encounters are by turns surprising and humorous. In one early scene, the bus Zhao is traveling on is hijacked by a gang who attempts to rob the passengers. However, the gang leader is so touched when Zhao tells him his story that he aborts the robbery and leaves the bus with his men. Instead of being grateful to Zhao, the other passengers demand that he leave the bus, refusing to travel with a dead man on board. Zhao is then forced to hit the road on foot, trying to hitch a ride with his friend in tow. Along the way he encounters a succession of colorful characters: a rich man stages his own funeral; a truck driver he hitches a ride with pines for his lost love; a beekeeper couple retreats from the city to live alone in the countryside; a homeless woman who lives by selling her blood becomes a potential romantic companion.

Zhang’s gentle humor and light tone pave the way for a very emotional conclusion that takes one by surprise. “Getting Home” is another addition to the incredibly strong cinema currently being made in mainland China.