Film Review: Coming Home

Zhang Yimou Directs Unforgettable Chinese Drama About The Power Of Forgetting

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Chen Daoming & Gong Li
“I remember you didn’t take out the garbage.”
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After a few years’ diversion directing lush, historical fantasies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), internationally renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou seems to be returning to the microcosmic social dramas of his early years (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Not One Less, The Road Home). Like those previous films, Zhang’s Coming Home focuses on the Chinese people’s ability to overcome hardship and adversity.

The film starts out in the mid-1970s. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution is in its final, desperate days. College professor, husband and father Lu (Chen Daoming, the emperor in
Hero) has been arrested by authorities for his “rightist” beliefs. Imprisoned for at least a decade in various rural work camps, Lu affects an escape during a prison transfer. Communist Party agents show up at his former home, leaning on his devoted wife Feng (Gong Li from Memoirs of a Geisha, The Emperor and the Assassin and Shanghai Triad) and petulant young daughter Dandan (wide-eyed newcomer Zhang Huiwen) to provide information on his whereabouts. Neither has seen or heard from Lu in years.

But Lu, looking rather worse for wear, is hiding in the shadows of the neighborhood. He’s desperate to see his estranged family, but he’s thwarted by police and—interestingly enough—by Dandan who remains wounded by her father’s perceived abandonment. Dandan worries about her mother’s emotional health and buys into the propaganda the Communist Party has manufactured (we assume) about her father. When Dandan, a dedicated ballet dancer, loses out on the lead role in an important performance thanks to her father’s unspoken crime against the state, her petulance turns to hatred. Once again, Lu is dragged away from the family he loves.

Three years later, Mao has passed away and the Cultural Revolution has come to a stuttering end. The worst of the Red Guard’s sociopolitical setbacks are starting to ease and the country is looking to the future for a change. Lu, now considered “reeducated” and “reformed,” is released from his life in the rural work farms. He returns to his home in the city, hoping to reconnect with the family he’s been separated from for nearly 20 years. Dandan, somewhat recalcitrant over her bitter teenage treatment of her father, welcomes him into her apartment. But she finds herself unable to explain why he can’t move back in with Feng.

Lu figures it out himself when he shows up on Feng’s doorstep. In the years since Lu’s capture, Feng has suffered a mental breakdown. She has an undiagnosable, Alzheimer’s-like amnesia which prevents her from remembering simple details of everyday life. Handwritten notes cover her apartment, reminding her to turn off lights and to perform other everyday tasks. Most tragic of all, Feng has all but erased Lu from her memory. Seeing him for the first time in years, she refuses to acknowledge him. Once a month, she shows up at the local train station, stubbornly waiting for her “real” husband to come home.

Heartbroken, Lu moves into an abandoned storefront across the street from his old apartment and starts to watch over Feng. Even with Dandan’s help, Lu can’t reconnect with his traumatized wife. So he comes up with various excuses to spend time with her, hoping that some twinge of deja vu will kickstart her memory. Eventually, he stumbles across the idea of delivering dozens of unmailed love letters to her—and then offering to read them as a helpful neighbor. Here, the film starts to resemble a Nicolas Sparks novel—which under most circumstances would be a dire insult. But in this case, the epistolary gimmick gives the film a quiet, calculated, lump-in-your-throat emotionality.

This sad, anti-nostalgic romance—based on the novel
The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Geling Yan—carries with it a simple metaphor. It’s not outwardly critical of the Cultural Revolution. (Today’s nominally Communist Chinese government still doesn’t appreciate disloyalty—modern or historical—in popular entertainment.) But it doesn’t portray 1970s China as much of a utopia—workers’ or otherwise. Grim, paranoid, impoverished, broken: These are not times worth remembering fondly. Feng’s mental fugue state mirrors that blank spot in China’s history. With government officials unwilling to denounce or otherwise apologize for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people seem content to simply pretend it didn’t happen. Call it “collective cultural amnesia.”

Zhang’s elder brother apparently followed the Nationalist forces to Taiwan after their 1949 defeat. As a result Zhang’s family faced difficulties similar to Lu’s family. During the Cultural Revolution, the young Zhang worked as a farm laborer and a textile mill worker—so his experience wasn’t far off that of his main character. As a result, this film has a haunting undercurrent of reality. Ultimately,
Coming Home is a conventional tragic love story—and on a much smaller scale than Zhang’s been working lately. Still, audiences in the mood for some wrenching romance will find themselves appropriately tear-jerked by this foreign flashback.
Coming Home

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