A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2014)

Coming Home is a story of post-traumatic stress, in which the PTSD is not just manifest in particular people but in a whole society. The immense trauma of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s was shared by an entire people, though it's embodied in Zhang Yimou's film in a single family: Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and their daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Like many intellectuals, Lu, a professor, is sent during the Cultural Revolution to the countryside to work as a laborer, but he escapes and returns to his family, which has been warned by the authorities to turn him in. When he shows up at their home, Feng wants to hide him, but Dandan, an ambitious young ballet student, betrays him on the promise that she will get the lead role in a production of The Red Detachment of Women. When Lu is finally released and returns home, he finds that Dandan has given up her ballet career -- the promised lead role is denied her anyway -- and is estranged from her mother, who has never forgiven her. But Feng has suffered another trauma, which affects her memory: Not only does she forget mundane daily tasks, she also fails to recognize Lu when he appears. Because she has been told that he will be returning on the fifth of the month, she goes to the train station once every month to wait for him, returning in disappointment. Lu tries everything he can to restore his wife's memory: He pretends to be a piano tuner so he can play a song they once shared, and when a cache of letters he wrote to her on scraps of paper while in prison shows up, he reads them to her, becoming a familiar figure in her life and engineering a rapprochement between her and Dandan, but never quite breaking through the bloc in her memory. It's a somewhat conventional and sentimental story, but Zhang makes it work, with the special help of three exceptional actors. Gong Li gives one of her finest performances as the deeply damaged Feng Wanyu, her face revealing the exact moment when her flickering hopes of reunion with her husband are extinguished by doubt or disappointment or fear. Chen Daoming makes Lu's patient, dogged attempts to cope with his wife's disorder credible, even when the script by Zou Jingzhi sags occasionally into predictability. And Zhang Huiwen, discovered by Zhang Yimou at the Beijing Dance Academy, is both a fine dancer and an actress capable of evoking Dandan's adolescent petulance. The cinematography is by Xiaoding Zhao and the music by Qigong Chen.