The plot may involve repetition, but the dramatic power of its execution sees Zhang return close to the form of his early 1990s works.
Dir. Zhang Yimou
2014 | China | Drama | 109 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean) for some thematic material
Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen
Plot: Lu Yanshi and Feng Wanyu are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner, just as his wife is injured in an accident. Released during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, he finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife has amnesia and remembers little of her past.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Moderate – Amnesia, Family, Cultural Revolution
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: In Theatres
First Published: 29 May 2014
The great Zhang Yimou returns close to the kind of form he displayed during his meteoric rise as an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and China’s premier cultural (and controversial) export to world cinema during the early 1990s.
In Coming Home, we see glimpses of Zhang’s expertise in weaving emotions in a drama set against historical circumstance. The film is nowhere near the quality of his defining films such as Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), but if anything else, it is a strong indicator that the master filmmaker is back, and more importantly, back to tell stories that matter, that need to be told.
Stories involving the Cultural Revolution are often sticky issues with the Chinese government. Zhang knows a thing or two about this, so it is no surprise that his work here is understated rather than provocative. The Cultural Revolution recedes into the story of a family separated by politics.
The father (Chen Daoming) is sent to a labor camp for reformation, while the mother (Gong Li) raises a teenage daughter (Zhang Huiwen) with an ambition to be her school’s lead ballet dancer. After the emotionally wrenching first act, director Zhang fast forwards the film to post-Revolution with the plot centering on the father reuniting with his family.
The problem is that Mom’s losing her memory of the past, failing to recognize her husband. It is a simple premise that works in a circular, repetitive fashion.
It may feel frustratingly funny for some, but Zhang’s solid direction allows the inherent dramatic power of the screenplay to work on a very human level, elevated by excellent performances from the trio, and beautiful accompanying music played by renowned pianist Lang Lang.
Coming Home is a straightforward melodrama that works primarily on the emotional level, though it is less deeply felt or as resonating as Zhang’s early masterpieces. Yet embedded in its narrative is something more telling, perhaps even frightening.
Gong Li’s character is symbolic of a national consciousness of loss, both physically and mentally. The loss of ability to reconnect with history, to reconcile with the past, and most crucially, the inability to remember trauma.
In some way, Coming Home is a veiled attempt by Zhang to portray a sort of Chinese amnesia of the Cultural Revolution – to forget, unwillingly or otherwise, the devastating impact of the Revolution. I hope he continues to probe the dark contemporary history of his country in his future projects.