Mao’s politics made personal in poignant Chinese family drama ‘Coming Home’
Veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is the master of emotional nuance. In haunting, deeply textured films like Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, he suggests oceans of feeling roiling beneath the surface of the slightest glance or gesture. After a few recent detours into lavish martial arts epics, Zhang is back at the top of his game in his new film Coming Home, a spare, simple-seeming, deeply resonant story whose life-sized characters will break your heart.
Scripted by Jingzhi Zhou (from a novel by Yan Geling), the film tells a moving story of love, loss, and attempted reconciliation beginning in the final years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As in most of Zhang’s work, the ongoing political turmoil of 20th-century China is a huge factor in the lives of ordinary people just trying to scrape by and survive. And, as is often the case in his best work, this film makes personally enormous, cataclysmic events by exploring their impact on individual lives.
The stage is set in the opening sequence when a bevy of teenage girls in pigtails are dancing fierce, precision ballet moves with rifles. They are students at a dance academy in rehearsals for a production of (what else?) “The Red Detachment of Women.” One of the girls vying for the lead role, 13-year-old Dandan (the excellent Zhang Huiwen) is called into the director’s office, where her mother, Yu (the lovely Gong Li, filmmaker Zhang’s longtime muse) is also waiting. The director tells them both the news that Yu’s husband, whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years, the father that Dandan doesn’t remember at all, has escaped from a labor camp.
Momentarily satisfied that Yu is not in contact with her runaway spouse, Communist Party agents stake out their apartment in case he returns. And prodigal husband Lu (Chen Daoming) does try to return; but, unable to get inside, he manages to slip Yu a note to meet him at the train station. This sets in motion a series of events predicated on love, courage, ambition, and betrayal that result in Lu’s recapture, while Yu sustains a slight head injury in the melee.
Three years later, Mao and his supporters have died or been deposed, the Cultural Revolution is declared over, and prisoners are being released—including Lu. But the happy homecoming he yearns for is shattered when he finds out Yu is suffering from a selective form of amnesia and doesn’t recognize him. To make things more poignant for Lu, his wife knows that her beloved husband is coming home and goes every day to the train station to meet him, but she’s unable to see in Lu the man she loves.
Zhang plays the material as a chamber piece of small, resonant notes. Mother and daughter are estranged, yet Dandan becomes Lu’s ally in trying to trigger Yu’s memory—a goal complicated by the fact that young, Party-bred Dandan once cut all the photos of her outlaw father out of the family album. Lu tries everything to reinsert himself in Yu’s memory and her life, from coming down the steps with the other arrivees at the station, to reading her a cache of his old letters. A moment when he plays her favorite music on her old upright piano is both sweet and devastating.
Zhang keeps the ideology to a minimum. We never know for what alleged “crime” Lu was imprisoned, we never see anyone speaking against the Party in private, and when officials come to her home to ferret out her personal politics after her husband’s escape, Yu’s silence is eloquent. Party politics are never discussed. No one seems to know or care much about the ideological details whose enforcement governs and destroys their lives.
Gong Li (still beauteous at age 50) plays her deglamorized role with heartfelt poise, and Chen Daoming is wonderful as her aching but ever-loyal husband. This is a film of small, precise moments to be savored.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Gong Li, Chen Daoming and Zhang Huiwen. Written by Jingzhi Zhou. Directed by Zhang Yimou. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG13. 117 minutes.
PRODIGAL LOVE Chen Daoming and Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s latest film ‘Coming Home,’ a deeply resonant story of love, loss and attempted reconciliation.