Coming Home (Gui lai)

China (2014) Dir. Zhang Yimou

After the lavish Flowers of War, legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou returns to the humble domestic drama with which he made his name, once again collaborating with his erstwhile muse and former partner Gong Li for the first time since 2006’s historical epic Curse Of The Golden Flower.

Adapting the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Geling Yan – who also wrote The 13 Flowers of Nanjing, the source of Flowers Of War – the story is set in the 1970s and centres on the family of middle school teacher Feng Wanyu aka Yu (Gong Li), her professor husband Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) and their teen daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Labelled a “Rightist” because of his political leanings, Lu is sent away to a labour camp to be “re-educated” but escapes.

Dandan is an aspiring ballerina, eyeing the main role in an upcoming production but because of Lu’s actions, Dandan is refused the role. Angry with her father, Dandan informs the police when Lu gets in touch to meet Yu and Lu is arrested again. Five years later when Lu is finally released he goes to meet Feng only to learn that she suffers from psychogenic amnesia and doesn’t remember Lu at all.

Yimou may have won over mainstream audiences with his visually stunning martial arts epics Hero and House Of Flying Daggers but his social dramas show that Yimou can make equally powerful films on a quieter and less ostentatious scale. Coming Home is one to add to that list and deserves greater international attention than it has.

Geling Yan based this tale on the distant memories of her own grandfather but Yimou and scriptwriter Zou Jingzhi have taken the final few chapters as the basis of this film. This might sound like sacrilege to some but it was an astute call by Yimou and makes for a better film, presumably sparing us heavy political rhetoric.

Yet this aspect is still prevalent, explaining Dandan’s behaviour and the officious rigidity of the movements in the community. The Party’s Orwellian control is never overstated but looms heavily over the proceedings from the start. We first meet Dandan rehearsing for the ballet, in what will be an amusing sight to us in the west of the girls prancing about with poise while brandishing machine guns!

Having never met her father Dandan doesn’t feel any connection with him so reporting him to the police is done without compunction; cutting him out of the family photos as we learn she did later however is just plain vindictive and has deeper repercussions for Lu once Yu loses her memory.

For Lu the mission is to find some way to reconnect with Yu and jog her memory without overwhelming her. Yu receives a delayed letter from Lu saying he is coming home on “the 5th” but no date is specified so every month on the 5th Yu dutiful waits at the train station for her husband. Lu walks down the station stairs but Yu looks right past him. It’s a simple set up but beautifully devastating thanks to the subtle performances. 

Yu’s plight is less the lack of memory but the longing she is clinging to for Lu’s return, oblivious that her husband is right under her nose. The cause of her memory loss isn’t revealed until the final act and brings with it a further layer of tragedy to Yu’s already burdened life. Yu also has to reconcile her issues with Dandan but it is the constant let down of Lu not being at the station which is the real dagger in her otherwise resilient heart.

The key to the film’s success is its restraint and lack of extravagance in the presentation. Aside from the superbly timed and rhythmic editing of Lu’s chaotic arrest there is barely any overt excitement, yet there is the constant pulsating heartbeat created through the emotional energy of the cast. For the most part, the musical soundtrack is absent, even failing to show during the dramatic scenes allowing the poignancy of the moment to resonate naturally.

Even with the dour colour palette representing 1970’s communist China, where the people mostly wore bland grey state issue uniforms, the photography is crisp and revealing while the odd dash of bright colour (red, natch) is comparatively retina burning against the pale backgrounds.

Yimou also keeps the sentimentality in check and refrains from the usual egregious manipulation to get the audience weeping; not that this won’t happen for some but this measured approach makes the experience all the more heart-warming even if it is rather bittersweet. The scenes where Lu and Yu are together often end in silence yet so much is conveyed by two people who are so close yet so distant.

Gong Li has been a top box office attraction in china for over two decades because of her eternal beauty yet her acting is often underrated. This film should change that, as she delivers her most nuanced and deeply effecting performance to date, playing someone around or older than her 50 years in this glammed down role with complete conviction as well as essaying the subtle mannerisms of someone struggling with memory loss.

As Lu, Chen Daoming is equally profound in his richly quiet and hesitant portrayal, creating a warm and touching chemistry with Li which glistens with genuine love and mutual delight of the companionship. Yimou’s latest protégé, dancer Zhang Huiwen makes a fine opening account for herself as Dandan but doesn’t yet display the potential Yimou clearly sees in her, which will come in time.

Yimou’s place as a one of China’s finest filmmakers is assured and after some recent rocky outings, Coming Home is apposite as a title as we find Yimou back to his best and in the genre he is most comfortable with. A sublime and precious tale boasting timeless lead performances and an unforgettable tableau for the final shot to boot.

Welcome home Zhang Yimou!