Perhaps most famous for having directed martial arts movies such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Chinese writer-director Zhang Yimou takes a step back from complex choreography and hyper-violence with the understated Coming Home, a well-crafted historical drama and love story based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi. The movie opens today at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
The film centers on Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and her petulant daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Because of his radical writings, Feng’s husband Lu (Chen Daoming) has been sent to a work camp, putting a strain on the family. Feng and Dandan learn of his escape when the police come looking for him. An aspiring ballerina, Dandan blames her father for leaving the family (she's even cut him out of all the family photos). Enraged that she didn't get the lead part in a ballet because of her father's criminal status; she lashes out at her parents and tells the police about a secret meeting between her mother and father. As a result, the police thwart Lu's escape plan, arrest him and send him back to the work camp. In the skirmish with the police, Lu sustains a head injury, causing her to forget much of her past.
When Lu finally returns home years later, Feng doesn’t recognize him. Lu consults doctors who admit they don't know what to do. They tell him they don't have the ability to cure her. So Lu sets out to find his own cure and hopes to invoke a sense of deja vu in his wife. During his time at the camp, Lu wrote Feng a series of love letters that were never sent. In the effort to restore her memory, he pretends to be a stranger and reads them to her, pulling them out of a giant trunk that he brought back from the camp. These scenes have a real tenderness to them and suggest the depth of the bond between the husband and wife.
Set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the film, which was shot in Tianjin and Beijing, successfully personalizes Chinese history and shows what family life might’ve been like during in the 1960s. But you don’t need to know anything about Chinese history to understand the subtitled film, a huge hit in China where it came out last year. The movie shows how love can overcome any obstacle, and both Li and Daoming deliver terrific performances in their respective roles.