ZHANG YIMOU LOOKS AT THE PERSONAL IMPACT OF CULTURAL REVOLUTIONS
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13 Grade: C
Zhang Yimou’s name and reputation have been well established in his graceful epics (“Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”) that blend sweeping yet understated romance, grand historic canvasses and meticulous technical execution. While not quite as universally loved here in the States as Ang Lee and his Academy Award-winning epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Yimou and his martial arts films have deepened our appreciation for the higher-art end of the form. But to focus solely on these genre exercises does the director a great mis-service, because he is just as well-known for his lush romantic dramas, which seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to the austere pastoral works found in the Merchant Ivory (“A Room With a View” and “The Remains of the Day”) canon.
The Chinese seemingly trade the dry stiff upper lip commonly associated within the British class hierarchy for a level of emotional restraint that feels like the result of decades of harshly administered discipline; at once awe-inspiring and inevitably tragic.
His latest, “Coming Home,” narrows its focus significantly (in some ways reminiscent of his 1991 film “Raise the Red Lantern”) down to a three-person family affair. Lu (Chen Daoming) and Feng (Gong Li), a devoted couple caught up in the Cultural Revolution, get separated when Lu is arrested and becomes a political prisoner for years. The film, based on a novel by Yan Geling (whose novel “The Flowers of War” was also adapted into a feature film by Yimou), does explore the details of Lu’s initial incarceration, setting up nagging unanswered questions about the depth of his “treasonous” actions. What we see, instead, is a man who has been kept away from the love of his life and his daughter—a man, virtually unknown by the young girl, who secretly lurks in the shadows, eager to leave meager scraps for them to gather, to appreciate his love, as well as his understanding of their sacrifices too.
This notion of selflessness extends to Feng, wrapping her in a shroud of quiet righteousness that leads to her undoing, once she makes the choice to surrender, at last, to her desire to have a life with the fugitive Lu. He arranges a rendezvous at the train station, so that they can disappear together, but Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) alerts the authorities—in the hope of proving her loyalty and for the opportunity to be considered for better roles in professional performances—which leads to Lu’s return to imprisonment and a traumatic brain injury to Feng. Years later, when he is finally released, Lu finds that Dan Dan has given up on her dreams of dancing professionally and Feng no longer recognizes him.
There is something heroic in Lu’s resolve, but it lacks the visceral drive Western audiences would expect and appreciate. We never get the chance to see him as a revolutionary figure, the firebrand sticking it to “The Man” (which would instantly endear him to us), plus upon his release, he exhibits none of the indignation, the anger at either his situation (the loss of time and his love’s memories) or even frustration over his daughter’s disloyalty. He is a paragon of virtue, an altogether unfamiliar creature, caught up in a decidedly dramatic, but quite human dilemma.
The ensuing homecoming plays out slowly—the process of creating a new life with Feng comes to resemble a patchwork of elements from films like Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and even the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore rom-com “50 First Dates”—but it shuffles along with none of the grim determination of the Haneke’s film, the twisted head games of the Nolan picture, and possibly saddest of all, not an ounce of the wistfulness of “50 First Dates.”
With love, passion or humor, “Coming Home” arrives at a vacant destination.