Road Home (2023) First Impressions
Unfortunately I am unable to post pictures at the moment. Not sure what’s going on with Substack. I had to rewrite the entire post because I lost the previous draft due to network issues uploading pictures. My apologies.
Whenever I’ve thought it appropriate I’ve reached for Jane Austen comparisons. Not just because she’s my favourite writer in the English language but as John Truby points out in The Anatomy of Genres that Austen is the Queen of romance. She’s conveniently provided the template and those of us who come after her are standing on the shoulders of those who defined the genre. 8 episodes in, there’s something deeply Austenesque about Road Home. More so than usual is my take. In these early episodes Persuasion comes to mind first. Then there’s a sprinkling of Sense and Sensibility as well as Mansfield Park. First love stories are a dime a dozen in Asian dramas. They used to be the staple of K dramas. The notion of a love so strong that even the passage of time cannot erase has a certain appeal. The longing only increases with each passing moment. All other potential suitors can’t compare to the one that slipped away. Here Lu Chen aka Lu Yanchen and Gui Xiao meet again after a decade or so. The undercurrents during their encounters are strong. Although the reunion interactions are awkward, they are gripped by memories they can’t leave behind. Still no love story is without obstacles much less a reunion love story.
Comparisons with You Are My Hero are inevitable. Those who of us who have seen both will automatically make those connections There are differences and the differences matter. You Are My Hero is fun and energetic. A romance that combines police procedural and medical. Road Home on the other hand is ponderous and contemplative. There’s certainly beauty to be found in both. Here the spectre of Austen is strong as the show contrasts Lu Chen with his highly irresponsible father whose domineering and abusive ways leads not only to estrangement but the relegation of of Lu Chen to marriage chattel for his father’s debts. The anachronism is instructive. It also points to something about the kind of man Lu Chen is and what he represents in the narrative. The father in common vernacular is a “loser”. The son achieves and succeeds in life despite his father. His role models are to be found elsewhere.
Lu Chen is a throwback to a masculine warrior archetype which makes him the perfect candidate for what he does. He isn’t just some ordinary cop who patrols the streets. He’s SWAT. On top of that he’s EOD ( Explosive Ordnance Disposal). He gets the job done and done really well. His story in the police force is one of excellence. He’s an elite member of a select group not only because of their skills but their willingness to put their lives on the line so others can sleep better at night. Police procedurals coming out of the mainland are by their very nature propagandist. They are inevitably recruitment ad campaigns for the force. Some like Ordinary Greatness, You Are My Hero and possibly Road Home are better done than others but romance apparently makes it all much more palatable.
Within the narrative, Lu Chen is positioned as the outsider — a creature in a league all by himself. He is the epitome of an action man. He’s a man of few words. Indeed that’s made more obvious when he is surrounded by talkative, good-natured busybodies. His closest friends and colleagues draw him out and they translate the complexities of the world for him. In romance he is handicapped because he is stubbornly sparing with words. But he has a parade of allies that help him through that process. That seems largely what they’re there for — to facilitate the romance and help take it to its endpoint. Take for example the boy who comes to live with him. His godson Qin Xiaonan. A garrulous curious child. An intermediary and part-time matchmaker. The excuse is that he’s being sent to Beijing to get a better education but what he’s really there for is to give Lu Chen the inside story on Gui Xiao and occasionally a kick in the rear end. At Qinming where the leads reunite, it’s her friend that helps things along. There’s also an old high school friend and her husband who are eager to help the romance along when the leads hit a roadblock. They intervene as mediators in an absurd arranged marriage transaction between Lu Chen and a former high school vamp initiated by their parents. Bestie does this because the entire affair is giving Gui Xiao grief. Overall Gui Xiao doesn’t contribute much to the resolution of the issue but she’s the reason that other people get involved. To be fair Gui Xiao isn’t entirely passive. Taking on the boy’s cause and helping him find a school, is her way of saying to the taciturn action man that she’s still harbours hope. She signals that she still has feelings for him. She did after all go to freezing snow country “for a holiday” in the hope of “accidentally” bumping into him while taking in the sights.
Apart from being his love interest, it isn’t entirely clear to me that Gui Xiao is as pivotal a character. She is certainly the prize for being steadfast despite the distance and lapse of time. She’s also the reward, to my mind, for a man who has dedicated a good chunk of his youth to party and country. Someone who has denied himself the most fundamental impulse — to have a family of his own — deserves a good woman by his side. There’s virtue in patience and it is its own reward. All of that’s implied. Considering her track record I can’t imagine that Tan Songyun would have signed up just to be somebody’s love interest. She tends to play it smart with scripts and doesn’t really veer off her usual penchant for likeable independent female characters.
I’m all in for the charismatic Jing Boran who is a perfect fit as the reticent and stoic Lu Chen. He makes it his own with a nuanced performance that’s comes off as second nature. It’s a fascinating 180 from his turn in The Psychologist and he pulls it off with great aplomb. His chemistry with Tan Songyun is good. Arguably better than her chemistry with Wang Kai in Flight to You. (Age gap aside I don’t think the romance was that well written either.) A younger Wang Kai could have pulled it off easy peasy. The age gap in all likelihood makes a difference. Visually. Generating chemistry. Perceived discrepancies in the all-important acting stakes. It’s becoming something of a taboo to talk about age gaps between leads which is baffling to say the least. Age gaps matter on screen (as it does in other contexts) because audiences aren’t blind to sharp contrasts. No one should be charged with ageism for pointing out the obvious.
Road Home is a mood drama. It’s a story about moments and events rather an overarching plot. The aesthetics are lovely and it exudes an artistic sensibility. The drama doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before but whatever it does with the story beats, it does them well enough because there’s a competent director at the helm with a couple of attractive lead actors who are convincing in their roles.