The 2014 Zhang Yimou film is a historical drama and family drama film set against the tumultuous events in Communist Chinese history where tragedy befalls and tears apart the Lu family. It stars Gong Li, who have collaborated with director Zhang for quite a few projects, Chen Daoming and Beijing Dance Academy graduate Zhang Huiwen (this movie is her debut role).
The beginning of the film reveals daughter Lu Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) training in a ballet troupe with rifles and marching, not like anything you would expect to see in a dance academy. Upon close observations on the walls one would notice that the ladies have pigtails and the walls are decorated with propaganda posters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And suddenly you become aware of why the dancers are dressed that way, it was the Cultural Revolution period. Although Dandan was a gifted and promising dancer, she is not given the lead role in the Red Detachment of Women （红色娘子军）and we later know that it is because her father Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) was a ‘rightist’ professor wanted by the government. Feeling indignant about the dance troupe’s decision, Dandan chooses to betray her disowned father and mother Wanyu (Gong Li) when they decided to meet up after years of not seeing each other by revealing the meetup information to the police. Consequently, the police arrives and arrests Yanshi.
Speed up time by a few years, Mao’s Cultural Revolution has ended and again, the story does not tell us directly. The change in lighting of the show, Dandan’s hairstyle and costumes reveal a change in era. Yanshi is released from prison but it was not his loving wife Wanyu waiting for him, it is their daughter instead. We later know that Gong Li’s character developed selective amnesia and she has forgotten how Yanshi looks like already. Yanshi then develops a series of strategies to evoke her memory which all failed miserably at the end and sometimes, leading to her ousting her husband out.
It is pretty touching at the beginning when we see Yanshi coming up with various ways to heal his wife, the love and effort was there for certain but over time, it all became too repetitive. At its film’s emotional climax where Yanshi exercised his fingers on the upright piano lying untouched in Wanyu’s living room, we see the couple crying. For a while, I expected a moment of epiphany and reunion but Zhang did not permit this celebratory event as later we see Wanyu pushing away Yanshi.
The film did not end on a high note as Wanyu eventually still failed to recognise Yanshi as her husband. Having admit to his fate, the former-rightist professor settled to be a kind stranger in Wanyu’s life, reading her letters written by him and sending her to the train station every 5th of the month. They are essentially living in two different time zone, one trapped in the past and the other hopelessly suffering in the present.
Coming Home is a brilliant film that touches on the cruel effects the Cultural Revolution brings to a family. Similar to The Road Home (1999), this tale talks about the undying love and passion shared between couples. But the film pales in comparison to other Zhang’s films such as Hero or The Road Home as it lacks any real action as all we see are repeated scenes of Yanshi’s failed efforts.