COMING HOME. China, 2014, starring Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen. Directed by Zhang Yimou. 103 minutes, Rated PG (Mild themes and infrequent coarse language).
A word about the director and his career helps give context to this fine but small film.
In the 1980s and, especially, in the 1990s, Chinese director Zhang Yimou made a number of rather small films with contemporary settings, sometimes going back to the more immediate past. In many of them, his leading lady was the actress Gong Li, the star of this film. If any audiences have ever seen Ju Dou, The Story of Qui Ju, or, especially, Raise the Red Lantern, they would look forward to seeing Coming Home. At the turn of the millennium, Zhang Yimou made two very fine films, Not One Less and The Road Home. But then he turned his attention to Chinese history, heroics, martial arts – often in the fantasy vein of Hidden Dragon. Hero, House of Flying Daggers were amongst those films. And then he was designer for the Beijing Olympic Games.
With this film, he has returned to his earlier simplicity and audiences will appreciate it, a small film, perhaps emotional and moving for many audiences, but a fine film and humane film.
The plot is quite straightforward. It is the time of the Cultural Revolution and life in the Chinese town like the one presented here is fairly colourless and drab. A school teacher lives with her daughter, shunned by many because her husband, a professor, has been imprisoned 10 years earlier. But news comes that he has escaped. His daughter, training for ballet (a particularly patriotic and militaristic ballet it is) has completely rejected her father.
The wife, played by Gong Li (who is now in her late 40s), is faced with the dilemma, to welcome her husband or denounce him.
In a very dramatic sequence, the husband is recaptured and imprisoned again. His wife and his daughter both see what happens. There are consequences for both, the wife so traumatised that she has what a psychologist describes as psychogenic amnesia, not forgetting everything, though she seems to be moving into a state of dementia, but an inability to recognise her husband.
In fact, the latter part of the film shows the end of the Cultural Revolution, with the husband returning home a free man, but his wife unable to recognise him. One of the good things is a reconciliation with his daughter who tries to help him. There are many moving, emotional moments in this part of the film when the husband tries many ways to help his wife recognise him, explaining things to her but she is still afraid; tuning her piano and delighting her in playing again, but she does not recognise him; then sending her all the letters that he wrote in prison on scraps of paper and offering to read them to her while she listens entranced.
Over the years, she always goes to the railway station, expecting her husband to be among those returning from the prison camps, always failing, always watching, always waiting.
The film has no easy answers but immerses its audience in the experience of the wife who desperately loves her husband and wants him to return but does not recognise him and the husband who has suffered so much and longs to be with his wife as they were together in their loving past.
Those who relish older films, especially from the golden years of Hollywood, may remember Greer Garson in Random Harvest, finding that her husband, Ronald Colman, suffers from amnesia, and her standing by his side for years without his recognising her, helping him in his life and career. This one does not have the final comfort that Random Harvest does. This is expert and small Chinese cinema at its best.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released July 30th 2015.