Judge William Lee is like a fallen leaf that can't get up.
"Falling leaves return to their roots."
China continues to undergo huge changes in its culture, economy and landscape. The country is a formidable world power, but what about the peasants that comprise the vast majority of its population? Here is the story of a simple man trying to eke out a living and fulfill a promise to his friend.
Facts of the Case
Zhao (Zhao Benshan, Happy Times) is a middle-aged construction worker on a cross-country journey. His friend Liu drank himself to death and Zhao has pledged to return his body to his village in the Three Gorges region. At first, Zhao tries to pass off the corpse as his sleeping companion but he gets kicked off the bus once the ruse is revealed. Continuing mostly on foot, but hitching a ride whenever he can, Zhao meets an assortment of characters that help and hinder him on his long trip home.
Getting Home is a light drama and a gentle social satire. It doesn't aim for huge belly laughs or twisted humor, but the central conceit does involve the protagonist traveling with a dead body for hundreds of miles. Consider that Liu's corpse remains incredibly resilient to decay despite the punishment it endures and it's clear director Zhang Yang (Sunflower) isn't overly concerned with realistic details.
Zhao's road trip exposes him (and the audience) to a cross-section of the Chinese population. There are highway bandits, local bullies and black market bloodsuckers to jeopardize his goal of returning Liu and his pay from the construction job to his village. Fortunately, there are just as many people to encourage Zhao on his way. One temporary road companion is a young man riding his bicycle to Tibet. The traveler has many modern devices with him such as a coffee maker and a video camera, which he uses to document his journey. In the city, Zhao meets a scavenger woman who routinely sells her blood to a shady operation. Traditional life is represented too, but more as a soon-to-be-forgotten way of life. Zhao has a surprising dinner conversation when he crashes a funeral service in a small village.
Zhao is a naive but generally likeable protagonist. His loyalty and positive attitude set him apart from the greedy, corrupt and unfriendly people he encounters. However, he isn't a very smart character. Whenever his situation improves—like when he acquires a cart to carry Liu's body—it isn't long before a mishap resets his predicament. If Zhao is standing in for the typical Chinese laborer, you can admire his resolve but pity his ignorance. It's probably not giving anything away to say that Zhao is in for a surprise when he finally reaches his destination.
The technical presentation on this DVD from the Global Film Initiative is only passable. The 1.85:1 widescreen picture comes letterboxed and non-anamorphic. If you're determined to fill your 16:9 monitor with the image, zooming in works fine without compromising the picture quality. The picture is slightly soft in any framing other than close ups. During exterior scenes in daylight, colors appear somewhat weak. That said, the picture is free of physical blemishes and stray visual noise. The mono soundtrack works fine but doesn't do anything to distinguish itself. The running time is shorter than what is reported on IMDb and on the DVD packaging.
The only extra included is the Film Discussion Guide that can be accessed using a DVD-ROM drive. I'm usually not excited about bonus content that exists outside of the DVD menus but the 19-page PDF document is actually an impressive companion item. In addition to the director's note and an introduction to the film, the guide contains a primer on the cultural context of the story that's essentially a brief history of China. The questions are suitable as talking points in a classroom discussion but for casual viewers they'll also suggest meanings in characters and situations that might not have immediately occurred before.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe it's a personal thing, but I'm not fond of passive characters or protagonists who are defined by others repeatedly taking advantage of them. For that reason, Zhao isn't easy to empathize with but, as I wrote earlier, he does invite plenty of pity. Maybe the director intentionally wants the audience to experience the plight of a good-natured but dumb guy. It is frustrating, however, when you see how he could avoid a bad situation by simply using his head.
Getting Home captures the story of the everyman who endures the consequences of social change simply because he has no time to do otherwise. Zhao may have a limited worldview but he is a decent person. This road trip through the countryside of China is filled with humor and humanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Global Film Initiative
• DVD-ROM Content
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