'Coming Home' (2015)
After a few years away as an unexpected director of kung-fu epics (‘Hero’, ‘House of Flying Daggers’, etc.) and the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, director Zhang Yimou returns to his roots. That means it’s time for the man who once fired an army’s worth of arrows at Jet Li to get sappy again. ‘Coming Home’ is an unapologetic melodrama dripping with overstated emotion and blatantly manipulative heartstring-pulling.
Still, Zhang is a master cinematic craftsman who has a certain knack for such things. As easy as it is to eye-roll through long passages of ‘Coming Home’, there’s no shame in letting those rolling eyes tear up a little bit as well.
Set against a vast backdrop China’s Cultural Revolution, Zhang focus on a single family and a simple story packed with emotion and metaphor. Gong Li stars as Feng Wanyu, a struggling mother whose husband was sent away to a labor camp. She’s raised her daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) alone and the young girl has grown to be a teen ballerina hoping to win favor with the state through dance. Missing father Yanshi (Chen Doaming) breaks out from the camp and tries to visit his family, but the paranoid Dandan, who hasn’t seen the former professor since she was three, panics and tells the authorities. Yanshi is arrested in front of his family at their planned meeting place. During the commotion, Wanyu falls and suffers brain damage.
Three years later, Yanshi is released from camp and is met by his guilt-ridden daughter, who has given up her ballet dreams. She takes the man to her mother, but warns him that her mental state has never been the same since the accident. When the couple are finally reunited, Yanshi doesn’t recognize her husband at all, staring right through him. Even worse, she’s convinced that he’s supposed to be released on the 5th of the month and travels to the train station every month hoping to see him. Yanshi eventually strikes up a relationship with his wife as a kindly neighbor who reads her letters that he wrote to her in the work camp. He’s pleased to get close to her at all, but knows that she’ll tragically never recognize him. Whew!
Obviously, Zhang is taking a great deal of artistic licence with this story, which never for a second pretends to be remotely realistic. Instead, the filmmaker has fashioned a movie in the style of the great melodrama masters like Douglas Sirk, who exaggerate emotion in the hopes of finding some bigger, deeper truths. There’s a metaphoric side of course, exploring post-traumatic stress and the way it permanently divides and scars everyone around those that suffer from it. That stands for both the specific political landscape of the historical setting and more general pain. Yet beyond any sort of statement that the director is attempting to impart on audiences, ‘Coming Home’ works best as a pure old-fashioned weepy.
The central relationship of the movie is gut-wrenching. It imagines the pain of reuniting with a true love who stares right through you or suffering from a condition that would leave you in perpetual waiting beyond all reason. Sure, the story is a little on the absurd side, but the stars commit to it with such understated emotion and deep internal pain that it’s hard not to fall under their spell. The actors feel these heightened emotions deeply, yet express them subtly. The effect on audiences can be devastating. The typically bold and colorful director paints the story in greys and shadows. His mood is sombre and cold, his story painfully emotional. In other words, it’s hanky time.
Obviously, ‘Coming Home’ is far from a universally appealing movie. It takes a certain audience willing to fall under Zhang’s depressing spell and do their best to ignore the overblown score. This is an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned manner that seeks emotional truth over verisimilitude. It may be easy to snicker through for those unwilling to engage. However, if you can find your way onto Zhang’s wavelength, the power of the piece and the strength of the central emotions will win out. The movie has the ability to weave an entrancing spell and tear your heart out, if you’ll let it. Not many people will be up for that experience, but for those who are, be prepared to read subtitles through overflowing eyes.