How long can love last if one person in a relationship no longer recognises the other? That is the question at the heart of Zhang Yimou’s bleak and mildly moving drama, Coming Home.
Based on the novel by Yan Geling and reteaming the auteur of Hero and House of the Flying Daggers with star Gong Li, Coming Home begins with an escaped political prisoner hiding from the authorities. Set in 70s China, the Cultural Revolution is slowly fading but Yan Shi’s family still must live without him as he is interned at a labour camp. His daughter Dandan is a brilliant ballet dancer whose loyalty to the party comes high above her relationship with her mother and father. Gong Li is Wan Yu, Dandan’s mother and the woman torn between wanting her husband back and her fear of the party and their wrath at those who defy them. Both Wan Yu and Dandan are warned to alert the authorities if Yan Shi attempts to make contact which he of course soon does.
However, Yan Shi only manages to see his daughter Dandan and when he passes her a message to arrange to meet Wan Yu the next day, there are disastrous consequences due to Dandan’s behaviour. Dandan loses the lead role in her ballet production on account of her father’s escape and so she turns him in but not before a struggle at a train station and Wan Yu receiving a life altering head injury. A few years later, Yan Shi is released after 20 years imprisonment but now, due to her head wound, Wan Yu does not recognise him anymore even though on the fifth of every month, she desperately waits at a train station for the return of her husband.
Coming Home should be an emotionally resonant creation but it lacks the pace and the stakes to really hit the emotional highs it reaches for. The setting and cultural context are ripe for an emotive story that deals with the impact of social policy on one family torn apart by political division. It should be angry, critical and powerful but instead it remains wallowing in the shallow end of flowery romance and never fully explores the potential of this time and place. The scenes between Yan Shi and Wan Yu dawdle along, rarely gripping or providing any real danger or threat. There is a wider narrative here outside of the central couple’s doors that is deserving of a better film.
As with many of director Zhang Yimou’s films, it looks wonderful even if the subject is too often insubstantial. It might not have the dazzling style of his best work, but there are some standout sequences to be savoured. The train station encounter between the escaped husband and his devoted wife is suitably tense with some excellent sound design and editing but an unfortunately muted emotional pay off. Coming Home opens with the striking imagery of ballet performed by young women with weapons in hands and the final shot is also a beautiful picture, one that the whole film has been leading up to but took too long to get there.
Without further context, the central characters simply are not engaging or developed enough. Dandan is the most interesting but gets less time than her tragic parents. Gong Li manages to convey the mental problems of Wan Yu with ease but her character really has nowhere to go and little to do. Yan Shi is similarly stuck in a rut, destined to repeat his attempts to make his wife remember him, but therefore with little room for development. A far more interesting direction for the narrative would have been to follow Dandan and explore the impact her actions had on her own life in greater depth than Coming Home offers.
Coming Home will find an audience in China but is highly unlikely to have the art house or crossover potential of some of Zhang Yimou’s best work. Despite its beautiful, bleak and moving final scene, Coming Home’s focus on melodramatic romance over the wider story of the impact of the Cultural Revolution is a frustratingly missed opportunity.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter