Restrained in its somber attitude, “Coming Home” is a sentimental drama reticent on its historical subject. While not saying a lot about the horror behind a key historical event which still haunts everyone in the story, the movie instead focuses on their difficulties in dealing with what has been left to them in the aftermath, and its quiet but touching moments compensate for its loose plot with predicable turns and underdeveloped elements.
The movie is based on the novel by Yan Geling, whose another work “13 Flowers of Nanjing” was adapted into “The Flowers of War” (2011) by the director Zhang Yimou. It begins right in the middle of the original story, and you can clearly see that from the start even if you did not read Yan’s novel. After the opening shot showing a man on the run, we meet Feng Wanuy (Gong Li) and her ballerina daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huvian), and they are notified by a local official that Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), Feng’s intellectual husband, has escaped from a labor camp.
It was the time when China was going through the pick of the Cultural Revolution, and it goes without saying that Yanshi was punished along with many other intellectuals by the Red Guards during that violent, destructive period. The movie never directly shows the madness of that time, but it indirectly depicts the oppression put upon Wanuy and Dan Dan, who have been labeled as the family of a reactionary figure since Yanshi’s arrest. After their home is visited by local cops looking for any information about Yanshi’s whereabouts, there is always a guy watching on an apartment building Wanuy and Dan Dan reside in, and they must be more careful about their behaviors.
As expected, Yanshi comes back to his home while managing to avoid the police in his shabby appearance, and we get a suspenseful sequence as he tries to get into the apartment building and make a contact with his dear wife while not being noticed by others. They are only separated by a door between them at one point, but both Yanshi and Wanuy are paralyzed in each own anxious state; they somehow sense each other’s presence, but they know too well what may possibly happen under this uncertain situation in which they cannot sure about anything.
Yanshi eventually decides to leave a note to his wife instead of seeing her, but he happens to be noticed by Dan Dan, who then reports to the police about this mainly because she was not chosen as the lead dancer of an upcoming public ballet performance due to his father’s social status. While she notices her daughter’s betrayal, Wanuy is still determined to meet her husband again, and that leads to a heart-wrenching moment at the train station as both mother and daughter feel helpless in front of what is going on in front of them.
The Cultural Revolution is ended with Mao Zedong’s death not long after that, and Dan Dan, who is now working as a factory worker, is notified that her father will finally return after his official release. While looking frazzled after long years of injustice inflicted on him, Yanshi is eager to meet his wife again, but, to his dismay, Wanuy cannot recognize him at all, and she even confuses him with a guy she is still scared of (the movie never goes deep into what she had to endure during those years, except implying that some local official sexually abused her before being sent to somewhere in the end).
While devastated by the fact that his wife has been suffering from some sort of amnesia, Yanshi decides to stay around Wanuy while being helped by Dan Dan, who is willing to do anything for her parents as atonement. He approaches to his wife as a new neighbor, and he tries several attempts which may bring back her memories of him, but he is reminded again and again of how much he is forgotten by her. He is certainly happy to be allowed to be near her, but it is also painful for him to watch his wife eagerly waiting for his return even while he is right in front of her.
In contrast to his recent epic period films such as “Hero” (2002), “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006), and “The Flowers of War” (2011), Zhang Yimou tries a small intimate drama here, and that naturally takes us back to his early films including “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), “The Story of Qui Ju” (1992), and “To Live” (1994). While looking polished in its period setting thanks to its nice cinematography and production design, the movie sticks to its realistic mood as observing its downtrodden characters, and its actors are convincing in their unforced performances as the people living in that harsh era.
This is the first collaboration between Zhang and his usual leading actress Gong Li since “Curse of the Golden Flower”, and this beautiful talented actress shows us that she is approaching to her middle age with grace and beauty. While the movie is not exactly her best moment compared to her memorably diverse performances in Zhang’s previous films, Gong did a solid job as a tragic woman who may be damaged beyond repair, and she is supported well by veteran actor Chen Daoming and newcomer Zhang Huivan, whose characters respectively represent two estranged generations with a wide guilt-ridden generation gap resulted from one of the darkest chapters of modern Chinese history.
While reminding me of other similar films such as “The Notebook” (2004) and “Away From Her” (2006), “Coming Home” feels sincere in its low-key melodramatic plot, and its wordless ending is poignant with a glimmer of small tentative hope. The damage is irrevocably done, and they can never go back to where they were, but at least they can do something to heal themselves.