Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Chen Daoming, Gong Li, Dan Dan, Guo Tao, Liu Peiqi, Yan Ni
RunTime: 1 hr 51 mins
Released By: GV and Clover Films
Opening Day: 29 May 2014
Synopsis: Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) and Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner, just as his wife is injured in an accident. Released during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, he finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife has amnesia and remembers little of her past. Unable to recognize Lu, she patiently waits her husband's return. A stranger alone in the heart of his broken family, Lu Yanshi determines to resurrect their past together and reawaken his wife's memory.
Just to reminisce how cinema used to have the power to move the now cynical reviewer, he watched Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994) the day before the screening of Coming Home, the Chinese auteur’s latest work. Mind you, To Live was a film made 20 years ago, and so powerful is the human drama (the story spanned from the 40s to the 70s, chronicling a family’s Mainland China’s tumultuous times), the raw emotions portrayed are relevant to this day.
Coming Home seemed to have the potential to make any Scrooge break into tears, but as this reviewer found out by the time the end credits rolled, what he felt was something more poignant than sadness. No tears were shed – what took its place instead was an overpowering sense of helplessness. Yet, this feeling was also one of sensibility – a need to move on in life despite the unfortunate events that have ever taken place.
Based on the last 30 pages of the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling, the highly recommended film which had its international premiere at the recent Cannes Film Festival in the out of competition section, the story’s protagonist is a former professor who tries but fails to make up with his wife when he is transferred from one labour camp to another in the early 1970s. He returns home after three years to find his wife suffering from selective amnesia. What happens next is a bittersweet tale of homecoming which requires its characters to make peace with the past, a life lesson some of us are desperately in need of.
This is clearly Zhang’s forte, telling a story of love, guilt and reconciliation set against the historical backdrop of the Cultural Revolution’s aftermath. You may know Zhang’s high profile productions like Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), but the gems are really films like Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Not One Less (1999) and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005). With Coming Home, it seems that Zhang is able to comfortably saddle between high budget commercial blockbusters and artistic productions which boast potent storytelling.
It sure helps that the award winning filmmaker has a capable cast to support him in this latest project. Gong Li, Zhang’s frequent leading lady, collaborates with the director for the eighth time (check out her wonderful performances in 1987’s Red Sorghum and 1995’s Shanghai Triad), and brings her character of the forlorn female protagonist to life. Stirring even more emotions is leading man Chen Daoming (The Founding of a republic, Back to 1942) who plays the forgotten husband who eventually learns how painfully exasperating and brutally realistic it can be to remain by your loved one’s side forever.
The two leads are supported by newcomer Zhang Huiwen who plays the couple’s daughter who has a terrible secret to hide. There are also cameos from popular veterans like Guo Tao and Yan Ni whom viewers familiar with Mainland Chinese cinema can spot.
You know a film may not just be a film. In this case, one can go one debating the political and historical symbolisms explored in the 111 movie. Is it about a country’s attempts to reconcile with its past? Is it about a new generation’s identity crisis with its nation’s history? Or is it about a homeland’s memory of its golden years? This is the beauty of this highly recommended film – it presents you with questions, and aligning them with your life may bring, hopefully, some sort of self enlightenment.
(Human drama at its best, this a poignant tale thanks to Zhang Yimou’s masterful direction)
Review by John Li