Coming Home


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Gong Li in Coming Home
"Gong Li is magnificent as always."

Zhang Yimou has made a few bleak films in his time, but this must be the bleakest yet. It's a testament to his extraordinary skill that it can hold viewers' attention for almost two hours and keep them hoping despite a premise built upon layer after layer of despair.

Lu (Chen Daoming) is an outspoken intellectual who has fallen foul of China's Cultural Revolution. He spends 20 years in a labour camp, despite a brief and heartbreaking escape. Finally released, he heads home to Feng (Gong Li) the wife whose love has kept him strong, only to find that her mind is going and she can no longer recognise him. Despite interventions by sympathetic party officials and by daughter Dan Dan (impressive newcomer Zhang Huiwen), it proves impossible for him to live with her, so he takes advantage of her amnesia to present himself in several different guises as a visitor to the house, just to talk and be near her. Meanwhile she continues to long for the husband she loves, to hang on his letters and to visit the station where she expects his train will soon arrive.

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A thoughtful exploration of the nature of love and identity, Coming Home has something in common with Still Alice in its portrait of a woman who has lost her memories but remains intellectually alert and retains the emotional core of her selfhood. Gong Li is magnificent as always, though her performance here is deftly understated, often letting her character fade into the background in scenes where she sits at the centre. The actress' lengthy career and the romantic bond this has formed for many viewers makes Lu's altered relationship to her all the more poignant. But perhaps there is more than one way to look at this. If there is no way back, might there yet be a way forward? Might he still be warmed by the love she clearly feels for him, even if she can't reconcile soul and body? Might she find some joy in the ongoing belief that soon the man she loves will be back in her life? After all, if things go on as they are, this is something she could carry until the end of her days, even if he dies long before her.

As Lu explores these possibilities, comes to terms with his own guilt at having failed to put his family first, and gradually unravels the mystery of what happened after he was gone, Dan Dan deals with weighty secrets of her own and with the burden of her mother's resentment. With no love in her life like that of her parents, her focus is on duty, but in a country struggling to come to terms with its recent past, it's not always clear what this should mean. Lu and Dan Dan both seem to manifest shades of a nation's collective guilt. At a time when much needs to be forgotten, Feng's amnesia may sometimes be merciful.

As beautifully shot as all the director's work, the film has a hypnotic quality complemented by simple yet powerful music, itself a tool for reawakening the memory. Covering some of the same ground as the recent Red Amnessia, but in a very different way, it's far less overt in its politics than its predecessors, yet imbued with a sadness which gradually seems to be taking the place of anger. In suggesting that love can still find away to survive in such troubled spaces, it may represent a form of reconciliation between the director and a state that has often sought to censor his work. What is lost is lost, but on the station platform there is still a dream worth waiting for.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2015
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Coming Home packshot
Returning home after 20 years in a labour camp, a loving husband finds that his ailing wife can no longer recognise him.

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writer: Jingshi Zou, based on the book by Yan Geling

Starring: Gong Li, Chen Daoming

Year: 2014

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: China

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