Zhang Yimou returns to his more humble, socially conscious roots, reuniting with former muse Gong Li for an earnest, if rather underwhelming, adaptation of Yan Geiling's The Criminal Lu Yanshi. While the historical significance of the story will resonate strongly with domestic audiences, too little context is given for its impact to travel into international markets, despite strong performances and big name appeal.
In 1966, at the start of China's Cultural Revolution, professor and intellectual Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) was arrested and incarcerated in a work camp, along with millions of others who were deemed a bourgeois threat to Mao Zedong's grand scale power play. Ten years later, Lu escapes and attempts to reconnect with his wife, Feng Wangyu (Gong Li), but their daughter, Dan Dan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen), now an ambitious ballet student with a head full of Communist rhetoric, turns her estranged father in before he and Yu can meet.
It is another three years before Lu is released and returns home, only to discover Yu has developed amnesia and no longer knows who he is. Dan Dan has quit dancing to work in a factory and is eager to atone for her betrayal, so together they attempt a number of different strategies to reintegrate Lu into their lives, in the hope Yu will eventually remember her lost love.
The background behind Zhang's film and Yan's novel (who also wrote 13 Flowers of Nanjing, which Zhang adapted into The Flowers of War) is a compelling story of families torn apart, separated for decades, and the eventual struggle to reconnect and reintegrate back into society for the lucky ones who survived. Perhaps even more provocative is the notion that so many of that era's youth were directly responsible for reporting on friends and family members, under the delusion they were doing the right thing for their country.
Coming Home is reluctant to dwell on these elements of its story, however, and refuses to detail the terrible conditions endured by Lu, or point any finger of blame at Dan Dan and others like her who saw their relatives incarcerated. Raising the topic should prove sufficiently provocative for Chinese audiences to connect very strongly with the film, but for the rest of us, what Coming Home actually presents is a dry, arduous tale of mental illness and forgotten love.
All eyes will be on Gong Li, back under Zhang Yimou's directorial wing, who was responsible for creating some of her very best performances in films like Raise The Red Lantern and To Live. Yu has lived a difficult life, having her husband ripped from her, their daughter turn against them, her country impose upon her that it is all for the best - yet she has endured, for years, and remained faithful to the memory of her husband throughout. Now he has returned and her memory fails to grant her the satisfaction of a thoroughly deserved reunion. In truth, Li deserves a better role than this. The character has potential, but the script debilitates her to the point of blank stares and feigned smiles. She must also endure decades of artificial ageing - no easy task for someone gifted such ageless beauty - but the role keeps her criminally internalised in a way even Li is unable to shine through.
Conversely, Chen Daoming gives an infinitely more compelling performance, as a man who refuses to give up or be broken by the system, no matter what is thrown at him. Chen conveys more heartache and pity in a single stare than most other actors could invoke with their entire body and a histrionic monologue. Lu has been wronged by his country, forbidden the simple pleasure to which every human being should be entitled, and thrust into a world of relentless labour and persecution. Now he has his freedom, but the only person he wants to see and to love has no idea who he is.
The only other character of note is Dan Dan, played with vigour and emotion from Zhang Huiwen, just the latest unknown actress to receive the Zhang Yimou bump. She displays physical prowess during her dance routines, a stubborn self-righteousness when condemning her father, only to evoke genuine remorse and pity when a change in her country's leadership helps her see the error of her ways.
Zhang Yimou's direction is polished yet unobtrusive, staging much of the drama in and around their modest family apartment. There's an early sequence at a train station that displays Zhang's keen ability to build tension on a large scale when required, but Coming Home is a quiet film about tender shared moments of silence, in the hope of overcoming extreme hardship and suffering. Perhaps the best scenes arrive late on, when a trunk of Lu's unsent letters arrives, and he reads them to his wife, hoping she will remember him, but also giving the audience some kind of glimpse into the world he endured.
Beautifully constructed, Coming Home is somewhat under-developed, relying too much on its audience's wider knowledge and emotional connection to the period, rather than earning it through well-staged reenactment. Had Zhang shown us why Lu was arrested, shown us some of his ordeals, or otherwise stitched together some of the events it does portray with greater coherence, the results may well have been more engaging. As it is, the central love story fails to adequately convey the loss and suffering these characters have experienced, and is so understated it too becomes something of an ordeal.