Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: "Coming Home"

“Coming Home” is a simple story of love, loss and sacrifice. This Chinese drama reunites luminous star Li Gong with director Yimou Zhang, who have been collaborating on films like “Raise the Red Lantern” for two decades.

It’s set during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and free-thinkers were locked away in the name of Maoist conformity. Chen Daoming plays Lu, a college professor and accused “rightist” who has been imprisoned for 10 years, then escapes.

The authorities know he will make straight for his wife, Feng (Li), and daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who was just a girl when he was taken away. The Communists make it clear they must not aid Lu and, indeed, are compelled to turn him in if he shows up.

This is obviously more than any loving spouse could bear to do, but Dandan has grown up under the Communist yoke and is loyal to the party rather than the father who, as she sees it, betrayed her. Also, she’s a top dancer in the state ballet company, and hints are dropped about her chances of securing the lead role in the big upcoming production if she cooperates.

Flash forward a few more years, and the Revolution has ended and Lu is allowed to return home in peace. But the little family has changed much in that time. Dandan and Feng are living apart and barely speaking. Even worse, Feng is suffering from a mysterious ailment that affects her memory. We would now recognize this as classic dementia, but the Chinese medical system was not sufficient back then for such a diagnosis.

Feng does not recognize Lu as her husband. Despite pining for his return, she insists that the man before her is a stranger. She is offended when he attempts familiarity.

Lu talks to the doctors. He tries to recall memories of himself through photographs and letters. He rides the train so she will see him coming off of it, as Feng stands there with a hand-painted sign with her husband’s name on it. She looks past him again. They repeat this scenario every month on the 5th, which is when Feng thinks Lu is returning.

Time passes; his efforts continue to fail, and Lu grows discouraged. He sees her every day, but she regards him as merely a helpful comrade. He is living in an abandoned shop across from their apartment, unable to return home, declining to taking up teaching again, devoting his entire life to curing Feng. But what if no cure is possible?

It’s a spare story with minimal dialogue and musical accompaniment. Based on the novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by Geling Yan with a screenplay by Zou Jingzhi, “Coming Home” examines the meaning of true devotion. Is it enough to give everything of yourself to a loved one, even if they never acknowledge the sacrifice? Can romantic love endure when the normal exchanges of sex and intimacy are precluded?

With its parable-like structure, “Coming Home” is less about reaching an answer than the yearning journey toward meaning.

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