Based on Yan Geling’s novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home looks back to life in provincial China during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, using a metaphor-laden, almost fable-like story about the vagaries of memory as a way of addressing the personal and political simultaneously. It’s an intriguingly peculiar enough story to warrant as few spoilers as possible, but it’s also tough to discuss the film without explaining at least some of what happens.
Years after being sent to a labour camp during the government’s purge of so-called rightists, Professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) escapes. He arranges a secret rendezvous with his wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), but their reunion is foiled by their teenage daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), who grew up never knowing her father. Partly out of blind political obedience, but more out of normal adolescent selfishness—she’s an aspiring ballerina who dreams of playing the lead in The Red Detachment of Women, but knows she won’t get it without a display of loyalty to the party—Dan Dan informs the authorities about her father’s whereabouts. Lu is caught and returned to the camp. Years go by, the Revolution officially ends, and Lu is released. Dan Dan has given up dance and works in a textile factory. Feng is now afflicted with psychogenic amnesia, a disorder characterized by sudden autobiographical memory loss. Lu comes home, but Feng doesn’t recognize Lu, and much of the second half of Coming Home concerns Lu’s attempts to rectify this through various complicated ruses.
That second half of Coming Home doesn’t feature a great many dramatic turns; it’s more about deepening the essentially irresolvable central conflict and fortifying its resonance. We don’t need to know whether Feng’s condition is directly related to trauma or heartbreak because the effects of her amnesia—a somewhat exaggerated version of a real condition—are poignant regardless. The Cultural Revolution fractured her family and then fractured her mind’s ability to register family at all. But Coming Home is also a parable about the perils of nostalgia, of marital devotion taken to an eerie extreme. Lu comes home, but the Lu that left, the younger, hopeful Lu that could have been husband to his wife and father to his child all those years, is never coming back. The film’s final suggestion that Lu and Feng will always be waiting—together, at least—for that lost Lu, is haunting.
I mentioned that Coming Home is something like a fable, and it’s worth coming to the film with that reading in mind. The performances register as pretty broad. Zhang Huiwen spends the first half of Coming Home with a scowl of heartless determination on her face that renders Dan Dan something of a cartoon, while Gong—who rose to international fame as the star of numerous Zhang films, most famously 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern—is most often sporting a carefully sculpted gaze that reads “melancholy” and “faraway” in large print. Gong imbues Feng’s psychogenic amnesia with a fragility that feels at times too much like a young stage actor trying to embody an octogenarian’s dementia. So performative nuance is not Coming Home’s strong-suit. And maybe that’s OK. Instead we get a fascinating story precisely doled out, and arresting sequences like the beautifully orchestrated sting at the train station. Maybe we should think of Coming Home as a film made for someone with Feng’s disorder: forget the subtle details, and just try to absorb the big picture.
Directed by Zhang Yimou