Chinese directors can now look back at the misbegotten era of their Cultural Revolution — or at least a prestigious old master such as Zhang Yimou can — so it’s a little disappointing that Zhang has chosen such a dramatically tepid melodrama as “Coming Home” as his vehicle for examining the aftermath of this destructive political upheaval.
Not that “Coming Home” doesn’t have moments of incredible poignancy and emotions. The movie features such stalwart Zhang Yimou stars as Chen Daoming and Gong Li in challenging roles unlike any of their previous ones. These two alone make the film a worthwhile viewing experience.
Zhang has chosen to focus not on the political upheaval and its cruelties but rather on a single family’s tragic unraveling due to external pressures. Like, strange to say, Michael Haneke’s “Love,” this film’s focus is only on an aging couple and a bewildered daughter.
But whereas Haneke was able to tease a multitude of emotions and virtually an entire history of a couple’s lifetime together from this narrow focus, Zhang lets his story settle into ordinariness, even a kind of tedium.
For his story is one of remembering and forgetting, of hope and reconciliation, and of a psychological blockage that prevents a true reunion of husband and wife.
Zou Jingzhi’s story, drawn from a novel by American-based writer Yan Geling, starts off with promise as almost a thriller. A professor, Lu Yanshi (Chen), who, after being arrested and dragged off to a camp for several years of “re-education” and hard labor, escapes and makes his way back to his wife and now teenage daughter.
The wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong), is torn between helping him and her duty to her daughter who is already suffering the consequences of her father’s “sins.” However, the daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), a promising ballet dancer in a propaganda troupe, wants nothing to do with her undesirable father.
Released years later in the final days of the Cultural Revolution, the man returns home to find his wife suffering from a psychogenic amnesia that doesn’t allow her to recognize him as her husband. The daughter has already cut out or destroyed any images of Lu from family photographs so Feng has no references for recognizing her husband after such a long absence.
Lu is forced to live across the street from his old flat from which he tries various strategies to force his wife to recognize him through pictures, music and old letters. Meanwhile the daughter has been forced into exile by her mother, who blames her for her husband’s recapture. She blames herself just as much.
While Lu is able to achieve a reconciliation between his wife and daughter, he finds no means to become her husband again. So the film settles into a stagnant situation where little gains by the husband are undone moments later by his wife’s mental confusion.
A couple of revelations do enliven these otherwise frustrating failures by Lu, revelations that expose the corrupt fraud and damage caused by the Cultural Revolution. Otherwise the film meanders on as its makeup artist finds various ways to age the two lead actors.
The couple’s rather dreary flats amid a dimly lit housing block along with Zhao Xiaoding’s lackluster cinematography conspire to put a viewer at an ever greater distance from this family’s struggle despite the empathy you can’t help feeling.
Gong Li and Chen Daoming are superb as the doomed couple. Gong, Zhang’s one-time muse, has allowed herself to play drab housewives before but never has she played a woman with such down-to-the-bone honesty as she achieves with this woman’s heart-breaking illness.
Chen, who starred in Zhang Yimou’s vibrant “Hero” (2002), plays Feng as an Everyman, a person confused rather than angered by his treatment from a callous government and perplexed by his wife’s amnesia but determined to find a way back into her mind — and heart.
Chen Qigang’s score, drawn from vintage Chinese revolutionary symphonies performed by concert pianist Lang Lang, works well within the confines of the intimate melodrama.
Feng’s amnesia can, of course, be read as a reflection of the collective amnesia the Chinese populace and their Communist Party over a past too painful to recall. The film does demonstrate that no matter how well a people can “forget” about the past, the pain will continue.
Opens September 9, 2015 Los Angeles, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Zou Jingzhi
Based on the novel by: Yan Geling
Producer: Zhang Zhao
Executive producers: David Linde, Pang Liwei, Shan Dongbin, Huang Ziyan, Gillian Zhao, Shan Baoquan, Karen Fu
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Lin Chaoxiang, Liu Jiang
Music: Chen Qigang
Costume designer: Wang Qiuping
Editor: Meng Peicong, Zhang Mo
PG-13 rating, 109 minutes