“Coming Home” celebrates two relationships: the one depicted in the movie, of a man reuniting with his wife after two decades in prison during China’s Cultural Revolution, and the other of director Zhang Yimou partnering once again with his iconic leading lady Gong Li. Together, the pair made their international debuts with “Red Sorghum” in 1987, when most of China’s films were unseen by the rest of the world and Chinese filmmakers had to toe the party line or face harsh censorship.
Zhang’s films were banned in China, even as he and Gong shot to stardom during the 1990s, subsequently opening the Chinese movie scene as wide as it would go and paving the way for other auteurs and performers to follow suit. After seven films together — “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006) is the duo’s last joint effort — Zhang and Gong have found each other again. In other words, it’s time to prepare those handkerchiefs for some serious weeping.
Under Zhang’s direction, you get to reconfirm all the factors that make Gong one of the most superb Asian actresses of our time. Other filmmakers have cast her, including Michael Mann in “Miami Vice” (2006), but “Coming Home” shows Gong in her true milieu: a woman often victimized by the winds of Chinese politics, but who manages to retain an inner core of resilience and strength.
In the film, which is based on a novel by Yan Geling. Wanyu is a devoted wife to university professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), whose outspoken liberal views run afoul of officials. In one stroke, Wanyu and Yanshi lose everything: his job, their home, a solid marriage and her sanity.
When Yanshi is finally released, 20 years have passed. He hurries back to his family only to find that Wanyu cannot remember who he is, but is still waiting for her long-lost husband to return to her.
During Yanshi’s imprisonment, Wanyu raised their daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) single-handedly. And now the baby Yanshi left behind has matured into a woman — but growing up under a government-driven market economy, peppered with Communist Party ideals, has left her confused and disappointed about her future. On top of that, Dan Dan bears emotional scars of her own, but has no idea how to deal with them.
Here, director Zhang seems to be making veiled accusations toward China’s fiercely competitive educational system that rewards effort and results but has no interest in fostering finer feelings or sensitivities. In stark contrast to her daughter, Wanyu lives in a fairy-tale world defined by love and longing. And Yanshi is happy to visit her every day in the guise of “a friend,” to read her the letters he sent from prison, hoping for a glimmer of recognition.
The film piles all the romance onto this older couple while Dan Dan is left out of the magic circle, her face set in a spinsterish frown. This melodramatic unfairness borders on caricature, but it’s probably Zhang’s way of slinging an arrow at the Cultural Revolution and its consequences.