Filmmaking doesn’t get more traditional or timeless than Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home,” a family drama of guilt, love and reconciliation set during the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Heartbreaking in its depiction of ordinary lives affected by political upheaval, this ode to the fundamental values that survive even under such dire circumstances has an epic gravity that recalls another great historical romance, “Doctor Zhivago.” While younger viewers may find Zhang’s classical style and grungy period backdrop too unfashionable to engage, the film’s rich melodramatic thrust has opened the floodgates for domestic audiences, grossing nearly $19.6 million in five days. Sony Classics will release the film Stateside.
“Coming Home” is adapted from the novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by American-based novelist Yan Geling, whose “The 13 Flowers of Nanjing” was adapted into Zhang’s “The Flowers of War.” While Yan’s fiction traced Lu’s life from his youth as a rich Shanghainese dandy and American educated intellectual, the screenplay by Zou Jingzhi (‘The Grandmaster,” Zhang’s “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”) focuses only on the final stages of his life, thus allowing Zhang to eschew the heavy-handed bombast of “Flowers” in favor of the august simplicity of his other works set in the same milieu, “Under the Hawthorne Tree” and “The Road Home.”
It’s China in the early ’70s. Middle-school teacher Feng Wanyu (Gong Li, who last collaborated with Zhang in 2006’s “Curse of the Golden Flower”) is married to college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming, “Back to 1942”), who was branded a rightist and sent away for “re-education.” Her teenage daughter, Dandan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen), who’s grown up with no memories of her father, is a promising dancer in a propaganda ballet troupe. One day, mother and daughter receive news of Lu’s escape; they’re warned by the district party officials to “draw a clear line” and report him if necessary. Lu sneaks back home and runs into Dandan, who, hankering after the role of first ballerina, falls for the bait of a party spy and turns her father in.
Zhang’s directing chops can be seen in the choreography of Lu’s secret return home, a nail-biting balancing act confined to one compact location. Dandan’s betrayal of Lu, which unfolds at lightning speed across a busy train station, fuses the thrill of a classic chase with the agony of Feng’s frantic attempt and failure to save him from capture.
The story proper begins after the end of the Cultural Revolution years later, when Lu is exonerated and discharged from a labor camp in the northwest. He returns to find Feng suffering from amnesia, probably caused by a head injury on the day of his re-arrest. With the assistance of Dandan, who has quit ballet to work in a factory, Lu tries every way he can to make Feng recognize him. As both undergo their own rehabilitation, the couple’s romantic history is partly resuscitated through souvenirs of the past — an old photo, unsent letters, a piano tune Lu plays. Feng’s fractured memory holds unimaginable pain, culminating in the disclosure of a terrible sacrifice she made in exchange for Lu’s safety.
Chen Qigang’s score, drawn from vintage Chinese revolutionary symphonies performed by concert pianist Lang Lang, is unabashedly sentimental, accentuating Lu’s hopes and disappointments with each endeavor to jog Feng’s memory, like the rise and fall of musical movements. Although the protags’ devotion to each other takes opposing forms — one dwells in the past, while the other tries to undo it — they both exemplify enduring love and loyalty.
The social context of Lu and Feng’s relationship may seem dated to some contempo audiences, but the course of Dandan’s fall and redemption is particularly relevant to China’s current one-child generation. Dandan may have been indoctrinated to put party above family, but the overriding motive of her betrayal is a self-centered one, which explains her bafflement when Feng tells her, “I’ve cared about no one but you all your life. It’s time I think about your father.” The moment when Dandan musters enough courage and humility to confess her treachery reps one of the most tear-inducing scenes in mainland cinema since the mother-daughter reunion in Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock” (which also starred Chen Daoming).
Those who accuse the film of skirting around its political context by not directly recounting events of the Cultural Revolution might well be reminded that Feng’s amnesia can be read as the collective denial of a past too painful to recall — the film’s political implication being that even if history is forgotten, the trauma continues. The poignant ending, which evokes compromised happiness in an imperfect world, nonetheless extols forgiveness and acceptance as the only way to move on.
In a film that focuses exclusively on three characters, with a few cameos by popular thesps like Guo Tao and Yan Ni, Chen Daoming shoulders the brunt of the drama, exuding dignity and tenderness; by contrast, Gong can be uneven, overplaying her character’s mental infirmity and acting very stiff when she ages in the later reels. True to the helmer’s gift for scouting new talent, bright-eyed Zhang Huiwen is a discovery, meeting the role’s demands with flying colors as she grows from spoiled, headstrong girl into humbled, responsible adult.
Craft contributions are excellent, as befits a film by Zhang Yimou. The action is mostly set around the authentically constructed and gloomily lit housing block where the Lu family lives, and the train station where Feng goes ritually to wait for Lu’s return. The concentration of location never feels monotonous; instead, it makes room for the enthralling human drama to unfold. While the music may be quite old-school, the Dolby Atmos sound mix renders key audio elements in certain scenes bright and clear, such as a torrential rain.