“Coming Home” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas, PG-13, 1:51, three stars out of four. I’ll be doing a post-show Q&A after the 7:15 p.m. show on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
Totalitarian regimes don’t just tell the people they oppress what to say and do. They tell them what to think and feel, what to remember and to forget. That point gets driven home in “Coming Home,” a mournful romantic drama from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
The film opens in the midst of the Cultural Revolution of the early 1970s. Lu (Chen Daoming) is a professor who has been imprisoned for his political beliefs for 17 years. He escapes and returns home to his wife Feng (Gong Li) and teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). But Dandan has no memories of her father and resents him for his absence. A dancer at a local academy who has been passed over for a lead role by a less-talented but better-connected rival, the frustrated Dandan agrees to betray her father. Zhang stages this in two breathtaking scenes — one a tense, near-silent dance in the middle of a downpour, the other at a crowded train station where Lu tries to reunite with Feng, but is recaptured.
Just three years later, the Revolution ends and Lu is released. But everything has changed now. Feng now has a degenerative brain disease (possibly due to an injury sustained in that station scene) and no longer recognizes Lu, thinking he must be the piano tuner or a family friend. Every day, she goes back to the train station, her face full of hope that today will be the day her husband comes home. Unaware that he is standing right beside her.
Feng’s amnesia reflects China’s collective amnesia about its brutal past, or perhaps the willful forgetting that ordinary citizens must do under such a regime to survive. Zhang stages some elaborate sequences, including that train station scene and another one at a dance performance that Dandan is part of, which ends with the audience waving their Red Books and chanting mechanically.
But much of “Coming Home” is intimate drama, as Feng and Lu pull out the letters they had written to each other over the years — letters they were forbidden from sending — and begin to fill in the gap in their marriage together. Zhang opts for an old-fashioned, classic cinema style to these scenes, at times zooming in slowly on a character’s face as the emotion in a scene intensifies.
Daoming brings a dignified grief to Lu, who only when he’s free can truly understand how much of his life has been taken from him. And having seen Li as a glamourous young actress in films like “Raise the Red Lantern” decades ago (this is her ninth collaboration with Zhang), it’s shocking to see how effectively, now near 50, she can now play the scared, bewildered middle-aged Feng. The passage of time, and all that Feng and Lu have missed together, is written on her face.
“Coming Home” could certainly have engaged head-on with the Cultural Revolution and the damage it wreaked, but Zhang isn’t interested in making a film so overtly political. Instead he tells the simple story of one family caught in the gears of a political movement, and how they tried to adapt and survive under tragic circumstances.