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With: Chen Daoming, Gong Li, Zhang Huiwen
Written by: Jingzhi Zou, based on a novel by Geling Yan
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 109
Date: 09/18/2015

Coming Home (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1980s, Zhang Yimou was one of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers that changed the way films were made. All these years later, it's difficult to argue that Zhang is still turning out work of that calibre. Coming Home is the first film of his I've seen since Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and I'm not sure I've missed much in that time. However, taken on its own — separated from those films of Zhang's glory days — Coming Home is a very well made, moving soap opera. (It's based on a novel by Geling Yan, whose work also inspired Joan Chen's film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.)

The story begins during the Cultural Revolution when professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is arrested and sent to a labor camp, but escapes. His daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) is a dancer and hopes for the big part in a big Party-approved play. But because of her association with her father, she's denied the part. Promised a chance to get it back, she gives away her father's whereabouts. When he tries to meet up with his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), but the police have been alerted; there's a scuffle, and she is injured.

Years later, it's all over, and Lu Yanshi is allowed to come back home for good, but Feng Wanyu doesn't remember him. And Dandan has given up her dreams to work in a factory. From here, Lu Yanshi tries several tactics to jog his wife's memories, using a letter he sent as a tool; it promises he will be arriving on the "fifth" of the month, but does not say which month. So each time the fifth comes around, it's another chance. Meanwhile, he poses as a piano tuner, and pretends to be a helpful neighbor who reads her husband's unsent letters to her.

These moments are all extremely tender and bittersweet and played with the utmost grace. You can almost smell how this would have played had it been a Miramax release in the 1990s; it would have been insufferably goopy. But after so many films together, Zhang and Gong Li have a beautiful shorthand; she is able to convey confusion without a lot of hand-wringing or grandstanding. But at the same time, the movie doesn't have a lick of the campiness that other melodramas have, say, in Sirk or Almodovar. That makes it both a little more painful to watch, but also a little more rewarding. In the end, Coming Home a nicely controlled, deeply heartfelt movie.

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