The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s saw the Chinese people being forced to reassert its dedication to Chairman Mao (and, by extension, the Communist party) under threat of imprisonment and military action. Neighbors turned into party representatives who reported on each other, dissidents were sent to labor camps, and their families were stigmatized in ways both big and small. That in and of itself is a scenario ripe for drama and incredible pathos, but acclaimed director Zhang Yimou’s latest, Coming Home, pushes it into the background. Instead, he (along with his recurring muse Gong Li) make room for a deeply intimate, human story that is only slightly bogged down by its languorous pace and occasionally trite melodrama.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Coming Home is the sheer brilliance of its first act, which brings to bear all of the mannered craftsmanship and visual beauty for which Yimou is justifiably lauded. For the first 30 minutes, a tense domestic/political drama plays out as we watch the recently-escaped rightist Lu (Chen Daoming) sneak back to his home in order to collect his adoring wife Yu (Li) and young daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Right away, we learn the tragic dynamics of this family unit: Each of them is torn between a combination of love, resentment and Party ambition — particularly on the part of young Dandan, a dancer tempted by the possibility of being cast as the lead in the infamous Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women. The climax of this act is a masterclass in pacing, staging and performance, Yimou finely tuning big emotions into something nail-biting and gripping.
Then the movie proper begins.
The film jumps to three years later, when the Cultural Revolution is over and Lu is allowed to come home. However, thanks to a bonk on the head during their attempted escape in the first act (as well as other implied abuses in the interim), Yu can no longer recognize Lu. Instead, she keeps believing that he is, alternately, a man named Feng who checked on her during Lu’s absence and a complete stranger. Heartbroken but undeterred, Yu then takes it upon himself, for the rest of the film, to do what he can to jog Yu’s memory in order to get her to remember him.
It’s at this point that the film asks the audience to make its biggest leap of faith: Yu’s condition is the kind of vaguely romantically tragic ailment that exists solely to mine pathos from its audience and form the contrived emotional core of the film. The dividends don’t quite pay off. Lu’s continued subterfuges to get close to Yu (pretending to be a piano tuner to fix her piano and play their song for her, pretending to be a stranger who reads Lu’s own letters to her) are charming at first, but eventually become slightly repetitive and treacly. To the film’s credit, the narrative smartly avoids a syrupy storybook ending, offering instead a fittingly bittersweet fate for its subjects. Still, until that resolution, the story requires a lot of faith and patience from the viewer that things won’t work out quite so pat as they may think.
All of this talk of plotting and pacing is not to take away from Coming Home’s mastery as a piece of filmmaking. Zhang Yimou has long been celebrated as one of China’s greatest living filmmakers, and his craft is no less evident in Coming Home. Unlike the saturated fantasies of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this film looks much more muted and intimate. Yimou’s tight, filthy hallways and gently falling snow depict Cultural Revolution-era China and its intervening years with a sense of desolation and ruin, which effectively cages the characters in their own resentments and regrets as they try to move forward with their lives.
As with all her collaborations with Yimou, Gong Li runs away with the film — even the endless scenes of Yu almost recognizing Lu, only to pull away at the last minute, are heightened by the compelling fragility of her performance. Daoming’s deep well of melancholy and Huiwen’s youthful determination contrast well with her, nicely cementing the movie’s dynamic as a contemplative family melodrama.
Despite its pacing issues and wistful sentimentality, Coming Home remains a deeply-felt exploration of the effect of history on memory and family. While it may not be as bright and showy as The Red Detachment of Women, Coming Home is just as operatic in emotional scope. It has a few pacing problems, and the tone could be a bit much to swallow for those averse to melodrama, but Yimou’s film remains intimately potent.