Zhang Yimou's 'Coming Home' Is Too Much of a Good Thing

A surfeit of melodramatic peaks weakens the Chinese director's latest film and makes it tedious to watch.

Coming Home Directed by Zhang Yimou; written by Zou Jingzhi; with Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen

Director Zhang Yimou has a special place in movie history as the director who, in the late 1980s, first brought Chinese cinema to the attention of the world with such impressive pictures as “Red Sorghum,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qiu Ju” and others. His early work gained power and depth from the way it combined spectacle with intimacy and history with a realistic depiction of life in contemporary China. Since the early 2000s, spectacle and simplicity have become two different strands of Zhang’s work. While his cinematic extravaganzas, such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” were impressive and at times breathtakingly beautiful, they left me detached, even indifferent – in contrast to his more modest sentimental melodramas of recent years, such as “The Road Home,” “Not One Less” and “Under the Hawthorn Tree.”

“Coming Home” belongs to the latter group of films, but it is a disappointment: The showiness of Zhang’s other work manifests itself this time as an excess of melodramatic peaks. Every time you think the movie cannot possibly go any further, it does, and in the process damages the previous peak we experienced. Some of those peak moments might have been lovely and moving, if Zhang had only contented himself with them without trying to add more.

The story opens in the early 1970s, towards the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lu (Chen Daoming) is an academic who was arrested 10 years earlier. At the beginning of the movie Lu’s wife, Feng (Gong Li) and his teenage daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), get word that he has run away from his internment camp and might try to contact them. (Gong Li is to Zhang what Monica Vitti was to Michelangelo Antonioni, and what Liv Ullmann was to Ingmar Bergman; this is her first film with him after a long hiatus).

The news of Lu’s escape is exciting to Feng and troubling to Dan Dan, who does not remember her father at all, is sure of the Party’s supreme rightness, and above all wants to play the lead role in a propaganda ballet at her school – an ambition that her father’s escape may thwart. The movie’s first section, which follows Lu’s recapture at the village train station, is directed with all the efficiency of a Hollywood melodrama and contains the seeds of the guilt that will drive the rest of the plot.

Constant gloom

The Cultural Revolution ends, and Lu returns. However, in the years since his escape, Feng has began to suffer from psychogenic amnesia, probably as a result of Lu’s traumatic recapture and its implications. She does not recognize Lu and continues to wait for her husband; she thinks he has not returned for some reason. Much of the plot follows Lu and Dan Dan’s efforts to break through Feng’s amnesia. At first Lu believes it is just a matter of time; however, when he realizes that her forgetting may be more deeply rooted than he thought, he moves into an apartment across from Feng’s with the help of Dan Dan, from whom Feng has also withdrawn.

There are two main problems with the central part of “Coming Home.” Loss of memory has been a prominent plot device of many thrillers and melodramas; it is dramatically effective because it forces those who suffer from it to reconstruct the narrative of their lives. When forgetting is used well, the result can have a broad existential significance. In “Coming Home,” however, Zhang’s use of Feng’s amnesia is nothing more than sentimental – a fact underscored by Gong’s performance, which consists of constant gloom interrupted by brief flashes of happiness when she thinks her husband will soon be home. (On the fifth day of every month, she goes to the train station to welcome him carrying a sign with his name, because in one of his letters he said that he would be arriving on the fifth, without noting the month.)

The second, more serious problem is that Zhang does not give the forgetting motif a symbolic value, which would have allowed “Coming Home” to say something about Chinese society’s struggle to cope with those dark days, which for many did not end with the Cultural Revolution. Feng’s amnesia functions in the movie only as a source of melodrama, and as much as I like the genre, melodramas are made effective by their own restraint and ability to expose their underlying ideological mechanisms. “Coming Home” shows no such restraint, even if Zhang’s style of direction is seemingly low-key.

Lu and Dan Dan’s attempts to make Feng remember include two powerful, effective images. One is the music Lu used to play for his wife; the other is his habit of disguising himself as a generous neighbor, who reads to Feng (whose eyesight is weak) letters from her husband, including some he has written now for the express purpose of triggering her memory. Zhang’s inclusion of both these evocative elements – two symptoms of a vanished past – causes a collision between them that robs them of their power. Their combined effect is oppressive, and it makes “Coming Home” tedious to watch. Zhang would have done better to choose just one of them, which might have made his picture lyrical rather than melodramatic. Even the movie’s title has more than one meaning, since it refers to both Lu and his daughter. The result is a film that has too much in it – and, consequently, too little.