Coming Home is the latest Zhang Yimou-Gong Li screen collaboration, and it reminds me of their great films from the 1990s. In Coming Home Gong Li once again shows that she is one of the world’s most gifted actors.
Director Zhang Yimou’s recent film-making has kept him busy, but mainly in a workmanlike way. International hits such as the Grand Guignol of Curse of the Golden Flower and the arthouse-wuxia pics Hero and House of Flying Daggers have kept his name prominent in world cinema. On a local level, he has remained in touch with Chinese audiences via a handful of homespun features like Not One Less and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Don’t get me wrong, these are all good quality and entertaining films. But I suspect Zhang has lately been missing the thrill of his “bad boy” image from the 90s, and he’s seen a project like Coming Home as a real artistic and political challenge. And it definitely is, considering it’s China’s first major response to the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution.
A brief one-paragraph history of the Cultural Revolution: In a desperate bid to hold onto power during the early 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a series of Stalinist-style purges throughout China. The slightest criticism of the Communist Party by anyone would result in serious punishment; public beatings and executions became commonplace. Chinese whispers routinely condemned hundreds of thousands of innocent people to detention camps, with many dying in such gulags. By the late 1960s China was, effectively, a closed society, and an economic basket case. The death of Mao in 1976 marks the end of the Cultural Revolution. In recent years, China’s government has belatedly released statistics from this period. Officially, at least three million people died and one hundred million people were “directly affected” by this totalitarian madness.
Coming Home is based on a 2011 novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling. The film opens in the early 1970s with an ex-university professor named Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) escaping from a “re-education camp”. He is attempting to contact his wife Feng Yu (Gong Li) and teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), both of whom he hasn’t seen for more than ten years. The party officials of this unnamed city in Northern China make it clear to Lu’s family if they help him in any way they will face severe penalties.
Young Dandan is a talented ballet dancer who is competing for the lead role in a flag-waving production called The Red Detachment of Women. She has never known her father and accepts the party’s line that Lu is a criminal. We soon see the insidious way the Communist Party works, as Dandan is relegated to a bit part in the ballet. She blames her father for this, and in a reckless moment tells the police that Lu is planning to meet his wife at the central railway station the next morning.
In a tremendous sequence we watch as husband and wife arrive separately at the station — and just as they are about to be reunited, the authorities arrest Lu. Feng is distraught knowing she will probably never see her husband again.
Years pass and we are told that the Cultural Revolution is over. Lu is eventually released from prison and returns home. He finds a family divided: Yu has disowned her daughter who now works and lives in a textile factory, her dancing career having folded after her father’s recapture. But it’s Feng Yu’s condition which shocks her husband. Outwardly she seems to be in good health, but since the trauma of Lu’s second imprisonment she has developed a debilitating form of amnesia, recognising some people but not others. On first seeing Lu she mistakes him for a party official and then doesn’t know him at all. It’s in these early scenes where Gong Li begins to shine, as she establishes the character of this middle-aged ex-schoolteacher who participates in daily life but is never fully conscious of her own existence.
The bulk of the film is then about Lu’s attempts to awaken the part of Yu’s mind which fails to identify him. It’s the drama of these strategies which captivate the viewer. Lu’s successes and failures may seem physically insignificant, but the emotional impact they have on the audience is anything but minor. Everyday items like a photograph or an unread letter take on an extraordinary value as we slowly begin to understand the trauma behind Yu’s psychological condition.
Gong Li, as school teacher Yu, may be the pivotal character in the film but her co-star Chen Daoming (Back to 1942, Hero) delivers such a powerful, understated performance that it ultimately enhances Gong’s role even more. Hardly ever do we see screen acting which can be described as truly collaborative.
One reason that I enjoy Gong Li’s work so much is that when at her best she becomes the character (and I don’t mean in a nauseous Meryl Streep manner). Also worth mentioning is the screen debut of Zhang Huiwen as Dandan, who reminds me of a young Maggie Cheung — she has a cherub-like face which at one moment can melt hearts and at the next can spit venom.
But it’s director Zhang Yimou who brings this film together. With a well-written script by Zou Jingzhi (The Grandmaster) and shot in a low-key style, it’s the drama of the narrative which he tries so hard to capture, whilst eschewing any technical frippery. And with perfectly timed and framed close-ups and two-shots he succeeds brilliantly. This measured, simple style sits well with the film’s intentional visual blandness as DOP Zhao Xiaoding (The Flowers of War) recreates urban China of the 1970s (with a real departure from his recent work on the ultra-slick legal drama Silent Witness.)
Since the film’s release, Zhang Yimou has been criticised by some Western film reviewers for going soft on the Cultural Revolution in this movie — and it’s a legitimate criticism, as the Cultural Revolution is never mentioned during the pic. But at the same time, such criticism ignores the fact that there would not be a person in China who didn’t understand or recognise the background of Coming Home and, more importantly, that the current political climate in China has allowed this film to be even made.
Instead of naming particular politicians or bureaucrats who designed and carried out these inhuman policies, Zhang endeavours to show how widespread and long-term the effects of the Cultural Revolution have been. As the storyline develops, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of Feng Yu’s are shown as having suffered terrible injustices throughout this era, implying that all of the strata of China’s population were affected by these political purges.
Coming Home does canvas the possibility of the individual taking on the state. Towards the end of the film, one of the main characters seeks revenge on the system, an act which leads to a most unexpected outcome. It’s a depressing passage of film, but even to non-Chinese audiences it’s made very clear that innocent people were still suffering the consequences of this scourge long after it had officially finished.
Gong Li’s performance in this movie is outstanding, and I can well understand her being mightily pissed-off when she didn’t receive Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse award for Best Actress (despite being the favourite leading up to the awards). I can only hope that the 2014 Golden Horse awards will be remembered as the year Gong Li wasn’t awarded Best Actress for Coming Home.
I’ve always thought the final shot from Zhang Yimou’s 1991 pic Raise the Red Lantern is one of the greatest images in world cinema. It captures perfectly such a poignant and heartbreaking moment, and I’ve doubted ever since that director Zhang would ever be able to match this scene, let alone better it. Well, he has, and it’s the closing image of Coming Home, which shows us two dark-clad apparitions seeking solace from a world which has left them behind. This remarkable, nearly static scene will either bring an audience to tears or ferment a deep anger. Coming Home shouldn’t be missed.