Zhang Yimou was one of the key figures in the renaissance of Chinese film of the 1980s and 90s, part of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese directors that produced a series of beautiful and intense dramas that often scrutinized the oppressive politics of the Maoist regime. Zhang’s films included Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live—the last named film was certainly his most uncompromising and critical, resulting in it being banned in China in 1994. But starting in the 2000s, Zhang seemed to have made peace with the government, producing a series of lavish historical epics, including House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. As entertaining as these movies might have been, one had to wonder what happened to Zhang the activist. Now, in his latest film, Coming Home, he reunites with his favorite actress, the great Gong Li, to present another drama depicting the painful consequences of Maoism.
Gong Li plays a middle-aged woman, Wanyu Feng, nicknamed “Yi,” who, along with her teenage daughter Dan Dan, played by Zhang Huiwen, is informed by the authorities, some time in the early 1970s, that her husband, a political prisoner, has escaped from his exile in the northwest and may turn up. They are not to meet with him or help him, and if he tries to contact them, they must tell the police. The husband, Yanshi Lu, played by Chen Daoming, does in fact make contact, but in a spectacular sequence, he is recaptured before Yi can help him as she had intended.
Three years later, the Cultural Revolution is over, Lu is declared rehabilitated, and he returns home. But to his dismay, his wife Yi doesn’t recognize him. She suffers from a form of psychogenic amnesia, and although she knows her daughter and a few other people, she believes that her husband is still imprisoned, even though he’s standing right in front of her insisting that it’s him.
Zhang’s style, and the melodramatic story, reminds me a little of the old Hollywood weepies, in films such as Random Harvest, for instance, where loss of memory and the quest to regain it are employed in heartbreaking fashion. Here the somewhat shopworn theme is redeemed by the fine performances of the three main actors, with Gong Li especially magnificent in her subtle portrayal of a grieving and dislocated mind. The film patiently follows the emotional arc of two married people who are separated, no longer by physical distance, but by trauma.
Now, the story depicts the Cultural Revolution, an event that is now officially condemned by the Party, so it’s not a dangerous or controversial topic. However, implicit in the story, and perhaps unnoticed by the censors, is the dramatic equation of amnesia with the aftermath of social oppression. It’s all fine and good to apologize and declare that the country has moved on, but the loss and the suffering, the ruining of lives and relationships, can never be fixed. One might even say that the benevolent despotism of modern China is a form of historical amnesia. The beautiful and tender Coming Home hints at a tragic possibility—we may never get to come home.