Zhang Yimou’s ‘Coming Home’

Family breakdown, Chinese-style

Coming Home, the new film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, succeeds admirably in portraying a low-key domestic drama with a good mix of suspense, tension, and tenderness that leaves one wondering about the elusive meaning of it all.

Don’t you recognize me? Chen Daoming and Gong Li in “Coming Home.”

Husband Lu (Chen Daoming) returns from a 20-year sentence in a labor camp in northwest China only to find that his wife, Feng (Gong Li), who has been absolutely faithful to his memory, does not recognize that the actual man who comes back is her husband.

A talk with a local doctor reveals that she is perhaps suffering from a type of amnesia. The husband’s face has changed in 20 years, too much to be recognizable. He does not look enough like the young man she knew.

The husband tries to create experiences that will jolt her memory, first with photographs, but he finds that his daughter had cut him from the family pictures. Then he retunes and plays the old neglected piano, producing sublimely sweet music that clearly affects his wife, but at length she only strikes him with her fists. Then he reads to her from countless letters that he had written to her. This too affects her deeply, but the husband is considered to be merely the man who reads the letters — “the letter reader.” Sometimes she mistakes him for an official who has raped her.

The fifth of the month

It becomes clear that the woman, who works as a teacher, is only going through the motions; her life stopped when her husband left so long ago. Yet she fervently believes that he will come back: He has written that he will come back on the “fifth of the month.” But when the husband playacts his return and gets off the train, she fails to recognize him. This ritual begins to take hold and is repeated regularly for years, as she unfailingly paints a large sign in calligraphy to greet him. The last frame of the film is of both the wife and husband waiting at the train station holding up the sign for the husband who never comes, but who is standing there right next to her. He had never really come home, not to his wife, and maybe not to himself.

The plot reminded me of the sort of psycho-muddle that the late Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote about in books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I was also reminded of the old folk song “John Riley,” sung by Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and the Byrds, about the achingly poignant reunion of long-lost lovers. “He picked her up all in his arms / And kisses gave her one two three / Said, weep no more, my own true love / I am your long lost John Riley.” But in this film there is no such triumphant consummation — at most a curious poignancy develops as the helpless husband gradually takes on the role of caregiver to the now-impaired wife who cannot or will not remember him.

The spiritual-prescient face

It is all done so well on a small emotional canvas. The couple is attractive, both having something of “the spiritual-prescient face. . .the pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning artist’s face” (Walt Whitman). The performances are good, with just the right mix of feeling and restraint. The story seems not just plausible but as if real life is occurring before one’s eyes. It moves like a strong poem — slowly and delicately, yet with power. Few would call this a happy movie, but it is emotionally satisfying. Its pathos is genuine and moving. I seldom cry at the movies, but I came close several times.

The husband’s time in the labor camp was the result of the couple’s daughter informing on him during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in order to ensure her own success as a rifle-toting Red ballet dancer during the Cultural Revolution. One is struck by not only the awful waste of years, but also by the inspired and gracious way in which the man tries to cope.

The film seems to be a quiet protest about past injustices while raising questions about human rights in contemporary China. The Anti-Rightist Campaign persecuted about a half million people between 1957 and 1959. Discussion of the movement is subject to heavy censorship in China, so it is surprising that the movie was even made and shown in China to large audiences. It could be taken for a token of relaxation and greater freedom, or not. I stopped being a systematic “China watcher” a while ago, but after seeing this movie I read Amnesty International’s report on China to try to bring myself up to date. But that's a subject for another time.

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