Zhang Yimou is one of the most exciting, compelling and visionary directors to ever grace the silver screen. It may seem somewhat hyperbolic to say, and certainly an unorthodox way to begin a film review, but one need look no further than the man’s filmography to see what I mean. Films such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are all absolute masterpieces of cinema. You can even take a gander at the work he did directing the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony to see what a flare for drama, visuals and storytelling this man has. HIs latest picture, Coming Home, pulls him away from the kung fu action dramas I previously mentioned by setting this film during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the mid 1900’s. Though nowhere near as flashy as his previous endeavors this film is nonetheless a master stroke of cinema. Allow me to gush.
Coming Home is, at it’s core, a love story. It tells the tale of Yu (Li Gong) and Lu (Daoming Chen) and the upheaval their lives undergo during the oppressive Cultural Revolution of Mao Ze Dong in 1960’s and 70’s China. Right from the start of the film Lu has been in prison for nearly a decade. He’s a so called enemy to the Party and therefore was hauled away to a Chinese Prison Camp. We’re told very early on in the film he’s escaped and that he may make contact with his family. His wife Yu, and teenaged daughter DanDan are told to notify the authorities if Lu should show up, and coerced into making a pseudo oath to the Party against their political dissident of a husband/father. Fearing the wrath of the Party, Yu reluctantly agree’s, while her daughter DanDan is a little more enthusiastic in her compliance, as she is a ballet dancer and Party compliance would assure her a top role in the upcoming recital. Of course, Lu loves his wife very much so he attempts to make contact. He tells Yu to meet him at the train station, and being a devoted wife she does so. Unfortunately young DanDan doesn’t understand the consequences of turning in her prisoner of a father and the police catch up to Lu and Yu before a proper reunion can take place. Yu is knocked down and suffers a head injury while Lu is dragged back to prison. It’s a very well shot, heavily dramatic moment for this family with unforeseen ramifications down the road and Zhang Yimou films it beautifully.
The film then makes a leap forward by three years, revealing that the Cultural Revolution has come to an end and the political prisoners are being released. Lu is declared rehabilitated by the Party and seeks to resume his happy life with his loving wife. Regretfully the altercation at the train station years earlier left Yu with what’s called psychogenic amnesia and she does not recognize her husband whatsoever. He tries time and time again to force his wife to remember him, but alas it’s all in vain. He instead is recognized by the old woman as a friendly helper and the two grow old together not as husband and wife, but rather as neighbors. All Lu wanted after his release from prison was to care for his wife, and as she will never recognize him as anything more than a friendly neighbor he’s content just to be near her. It’s frustrating for the viewer because of how much we care for and are rooting for Lu and Yu to be truly reunited, but we have to set aside our wants for them and be contented with the tragic beauty of what that relationship must become.
While not as visually flashy as Zhang Yimou’s previous films, this film holds it’s own in his filmography based on the expert direction and acting from all parties involved. Daoming Chen and Li Gong give some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. The subtle sadness, melancholy and longing Chen brings to his character, all while imbuing the performance with tenderness, was absolutely fantastic to see. Li Gong did a beautiful job essentially playing two people, the woman she was before the amnesia and after. She really shines after the midway point when Lu is trying to reunite them. The frustrated mood swings brought on by not remembering so many important aspects of her life are brilliantly displayed by Li Gong. There’s a moment in the film where Lu plays a piece on the piano and a glimmer of recognition dances across Yu’s face. This sliver of hope, followed by the heartache of another failed recollection is beautiful and tragic. It nearly brought a tear to my eye. That sequence is shot with such precision and craftsmanship that I found myself leaning forward in my seat, ready to jump up and cheer should Lu’s exquisite piano playing gambit pay off. The rest of the cast shone brightly as well, but the movie ultimately belongs to Daoming Chen and Li Gong. We get to see two master actors at the top of their game and there’s nothing more rewarding for a cinephile than that.
One of the aspect of this film I found surprising was how under politicized it was. It took place during a very politically, and socially sensitive time and one would expect the filmmaker to, in one form or another, take sides in the issue. After all, there was some stir over Yimou’s film Hero being nothing more than nationalist Chinese propaganda (though I believe such accusations to be completely unfounded). Zhang Yimou very wisely does not take an explicit side in Coming Home. He uses the Cultural Revolution as nothing more than a backdrop and framing device. Just as a Western is not about the mountain a cowboy traverses, this film is not about what drove these two apart, but rather how transcendent true love and devotion can be. The Cultural Revolution was an event that happened, but he didn’t make it anything more. There’s no Romeo and Juliet style side picking. All that matters is the love this man feels towards his wife. Honestly, it makes the film all the more impactful by not dwelling on the political aspects of the story. It removes the potential for eye rolling personal bias, and allows the audience to focus only on these characters.
I do recommend this film to anyone looking for a tender, tragic, but ultimately beautiful love story. It’s a bit long, and at times frustrating seeing Lu go so long without a triumph, but in the end that’s the point of the story. He couldn’t make his wife remember, so he had to settle with whatever he could to be with his great love. Zhang Yimou remains one of the best directors in the game and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Coming Home is a beautiful drama that should not be missed.