Coming Home (2015)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/21/15 09:49:42
If "Coming Home" were just the movie it looked like from the trailer for its American release, it would likely be worth seeing - Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have the track record together and separately that certainly suggests that they could elevate a simple medical weepy into something more than maudlin. As it turns out, that conventional story winds up less interesting than what goes on around it, which makes the film well worth standing alongside Zhang's and Gong's other great collaborations.It opens in 1975, with Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a dissident who has been in prison for ten years, escaping while being transferred between trains in his hometown. Officials immediately come to his family - teacher Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) - and impress upon them how important it is they turn him in should they see him. Several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Lu is deemed "rehabilitated" and released, but when Dandan picks him up at the train station, there is bad news: "Yu" has developed a mental disorder that affects her memory, and her husband's face is among the things she can't remember.
The opening act of Coming Home is something approaching sublime in how it deals less with the principles involved - those are easy - than with the practical human reactions to the situation. Dandan is a gifted dancer, and this sequence plays out with the beautiful precision of a ballet, with the straight-backed daughter who grew up in this system seeming to flit between fealty to the state and loyalty to her mother, her movements complemented by how Lu sneaks around the apartment building and Yu attempts to watch her daughter and watch for her husband. This goes on against a situation built to push a teenager's buttons, with Zhang and screenwriter Zou Jingzhi (working from Yan Geling's novel) respecting the audience enough to keep things low-key; even as characters sometimes seem to reverse twice in a minute, everything is relayed elegantly, without pauses to explain the obvious.
That first segment ends with Yu bleeding from the head after being tackled by the police and it's clear that she's not right when she is first seen a few scenes later, and while a visit to the doctor doesn't draw that line, the audience is free to do so. Dandan living in the dormitory of the factory where she now works is much clearer; that incident poisoned everything for her. So the characters spend the rest of the movie working toward restoration, something treated like it should be easy: Lu is offered his old job as a university professor back, and people greet him on the street as if he hasn't been a political prisoner for nearly twenty years. It's obviously not going to be as easy as that, though, and there are times when it seems anger is much easier to hold on to than something more positive.
It's tempting to make this a movie about China rather than one in which the country's history supplies essential background, and perhaps not entirely unwarranted. If so, it's more conciliatory than most, containing a fairly strong message about how pining for what was may not be quite so practical as giving it up and starting anew - that trying to make things as they were may not always be doomed, but one can't see anything less than that as failure. Of course, this applies to individuals just as well as nations, and it is to Zhang's great credit that it works best and most definitively as the story of Wu, Lu, and Dandan, even if its truths do scale.
Gong Li and Zhang Yimou have been working together long enough that it's entirely-reasonable to imagine a late-1980s version of this film where Gong plays Dandan, especially since Yu is the least exciting character in a lot of ways. Gong doesn't become a full parody of mental illness or even close to it, but there's a hesitation to Yu that suggests her issues are more than memory. Then again, one wouldn't necessarily want to displace Zhang Huiwen from her role; as in Forever Young, she plays a dancer, and I wonder if she's well-enough known for this in China that seeing her relegated to the back of the troupe feels especially unjust. She's excellent regardless, infusing the younger Dandan with ambition and simple loyalty, and allowing it to peek out from under the layers that the older Dandan has built up. It's especially beautiful to watch her play against Chen Daoming, who makes sure that Lu's dignity is modest, as is his true love for each of these ladies. If this character were put on a pedestal, than neither one of his two very different attempts to reconnect would be as powerful.Indeed, though the advertising plays up the most recent reunion of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, "Coming Home" may be more worth watching because Zhang Huiwen could be the next Gong Li - and even if she isn't, the father/daughter material is just as strong as the woman nobly suffering from cognitive disability.
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