“Coming Home” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux


In “Coming Home,” we are faced with the prospect of unrequited love…after the fact. To put it simply, this terrifically engaging film plays like an amalgam of “Away From Her,” “50 First Dates,” and “Hachi: a Dog’s Tale,” set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution! Director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”) draws upon themes that challenge everything we know about love, hope, and sacrifice, and as a result, crafts a timeless film that transcends language (in Chinese with English subtitles) or country.


Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is an escaped political prisoner, in the midst of Mao Zedong’s purge of all things western during the 1960’s, and is desperately trying to make his way home to his wife Feng Wangyu (Gong Li) and daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen). Lu has been gone nearly all of Dan Dan’s life, a fact for which she harbors extreme resentment towards the man referred to as her father. Still, the bright young girl finds her release by dancing, with aspirations to represent her school with the lead role in “The Red Detachment of Women.” When Lu eventually does make his way to his family, his reunion with Feng is cut short as the two tearfully don’t even come into physical contact before Lu is retaken prisoner as a deal cut with the authorities by Dan Dan.953-film-cominghome-photographer-bai-xiaoyan-huiwen-zhang

Three years later, Lu is released and finally makes his way home after nearly 20 years in prison. Unfortunately, the reunion between him and his wife doesn’t quite go as planned, as Feng doesn’t recognize Lu as her husband. In fact, she violently throws him out of the house, while referring to him as Mr. Fang. Lu, who’s as clueless as the viewer, discovers that his wife was diagnosed with a PTSD-related form of amnesia right after he was sent back to the prison camps. With the help of the 180 degree-turned Dan Dan (hint: she didn’t get the part after all), who now lives alone and no longer dances, Lu tirelessly attempts to jog his wife’s memory, even going as far as posing as a piano tuner or a kind neighbor enlisted to read his own letters to her! Because Lu had previously written that he was to arrive on the 5th, with no month indicated, Feng makes it her sole purpose in life to wait for her husband at the train station each and every month, unable to realize that the love of her life stands right beside her at the station, each and every month.p10-shoji-home-a-20150305

This film boasts some dynamic performances from its three main leads. Veteran Chen gives a heart-wrenching reading of Lu, as we truly empathize with his harrowing plight yet are held in awe at his resilience and commitment to the woman he adores in spite of life’s setbacks. However, we aren’t given a pass to get angry at Feng and her rejection of Lu, as well-renowned actress Gong (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Shanghai”) brings an admiration to the role of a woman who has spent 20 long years raising a child on her own while fending off undue horrors inflicted by members of the state. The fact that she can’t remember her husband’s face and has replaced it with someone who has brought pain to her is the paragon of unjust irony. Last but certainly not least is newcomer Zhang, a revelatory scene-stealer who we’ll be seeing plenty more of in the future. The scenes of her dancing “The Red Detachment of Women” is presented in a pseudo-ethereal manner that transfixes the viewer, catapulting us into another time and place.cominghome-mv-13

Under the tight direction of Zhang Yimou, “Coming Home” represents how a movie can fulfill its viewer, while subtly depriving him at the same time. We become invested in all three of these characters and are forced to forgive each one of their shortcomings. I honestly cannot remember the last time a triad of actors equally exemplified pathos to such a degree. Based on the book, “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by Geling Yan, “Coming Home” is a thoughtful and poignant drama that has the good fortune of being able to instantaneously connect with its audience. And whether we’re concerned about Lu escaping capture at the beginning of the film, or worried about whether or not Feng will start to remember, we are never burdened with the unpleasant emotions these moments provoke, but rather are able to gently embrace the hope that is created when love abounds, even when it’s skewed.
***1/2 (three and a half out of four stars)

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