He’s been much less prolific in the last decade, but I’ve been a big supporter of the work of Chinese director Zhang Yimou for a quarter of a century. It’s easy to label a good half dozen of his films from that period out-and-out great (namely “Ju Dou”, “Raise the Red Lantern”, “The Story of Qiu Ju”, “To Live”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers”), and another handful, at least, approaching their league. Of course, most of those also starred Yimou’s one-time wife, the astonishing Gong Li. Not officially a romantic couple since the 1990’s, they’ve found a way to work together again in the last few years with 2006’s “The Curse of the Golden Flower”, and this latest collaboration called “Coming Home”. And it’s such a thrilling and welcome partnership, that I feel incredibly sheepish admitting that I didn’t quite connect with this internationally praised historical drama. In it, I sense an abundance of the sentimental aspects that marred some of the director’s lesser features like “The Road Home” and “Happy Times”. But even those contained hidden riches. Whereas, “Coming Home” is the first movie from the legendary filmmaker that I only barely recommend.
Lu Yanshi (a strong Chen Daoming) is a professor arrested during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and sent to a labor camp. He longs for his wife Feng Wanyu (the always mesmerizing Ms. Li) and teenage ballerina daughter, Dandan (the very effective, Zhang Huiwen), and so manages to escape his incarceration for a period, in order to see them. However, Lu is found out, and Feng is injured with a blow to the head, after the couple has a brief altercation with the police. Lu is dragged back to the camp–not to return for years. When the Cultural Revolution ends, Lu comes home to find the otherwise healthy Feng suffering from amnesia. And one-time expert dancer Dandan, is now working at a textile mill. To make matters worse, Feng’s affliction has rendered her completely incapable of recognizing her long-lost spouse. Upon this horrible realization, Lu and his daughter enact a series of elaborate deceptions, devised to hopefully spark Feng’s faulty powers of remembrance.
It’s a polished production…and I believe that’s part of the problem. This film lacks the stark naturalism of the director’s earlier catalogue, which would’ve made “Coming Home” more of an appropriate return to form. Instead, Yimou opts for grand gestures depicting lost romance, and obvious metaphors linking the couple’s plight to the interaction of China and its people. These are noble avenues to take, but simplistic and artistically suspect. The first half of the story works far better than the mushy 2nd act and finale. A trio of superb performances save it from the dust bin, however, and Zhang Yimou’s mastery of craft is never in question. This was a sizable hit in China, before being given a limited release in the States in 2015. For now, I’m hoping Yimou fares better, with his high-budgeted, international-cast, 3D epic, “The Great Wall”, set to be unveiled here early next year. “Coming Home” is in Mandarin, with English subtitles.