Dealing with the recent past in mainstream Chinese film can be a difficult business. While you may be able to get away with making a comment on the present through looking at the pre-communist past, raising the spectres of some of the darker episodes in post-Mao Zedong China is, at best, taboo. That Zhang Yimou, more recently moving into the mainstream as one of China’s most bankable directors both abroad and domestically, has been able to make a film about the suffering endured by countless citizens during The Cultural Revolution is therefore a little surprising. However, Coming Home is far from an examination of the period’s horrors but rather a metaphor for modern China reframed as a melodrama of deep love and marital happiness frustrated by historical circumstance.
Based on The Criminal Lu Yanshi, a book by Yan Geling, the central story focuses on the trio of Lu - a professor sent for “re-education” at the beginning of The Cultural Revolution - his wife Feng and their daughter Dandan. The first part of the film sees Dandan attending a ballet school and hoping to gain the lead in the upcoming propaganda ballet Red Detachment of Women. However, despite being the most talented dancer she learns she will not be chosen for a leading role because of her father’s disgrace - a situation further complicated because it transpires her father has escaped from the camp and may be trying to return home. Despite the warnings and the obvious danger, Feng is desperate to see her husband again though Dandan, who was just an infant when her father was taken away, is angry and resentful. Lu’s attempt to return ends in recapture and it’s not until the end of The Cultural Revoltion years later that he’s finally able to come home. However, Feng now suffers from mild dementia and refuses to recognise this much older version of the man she’s been waiting for all this time. Every fifth day of the month she goes to the station to wait for her husband completely unaware that he has already returned.
It’s the second half of the story that occupies the bulk of the running time, as Lu’s original escape attempt becomes more or less a prologue to the main story. Having returned home, Lu tries to reawaken his wife’s dormant memories by reminding her of their shared past. Feng can take care of herself day to day though she forgets things and muddles up timescales, but is unable to acknowledge Lu as her husband. Along with the remorseful Dandan who only now understands exactly what her parents have been through, he tries to remind her of happier times by reading her letters or playing the piano as he used to do. In someways the political circumstances take a back seat here as Feng’s dementia could easily be solely of natural causes (though the film strongly suggests a blow to the head during Lu’s escape attempt and subsequent traumas may be a partial cause of her memory loss) and Lu the loving husband trying to keep their past alive. However, the situation is further complicated as the couple have now been separated for over twenty years with no contact at all. There was immense suffering on both sides with Lu desperate to see his wife and daughter again but never knowing if he would, and his wife making great sacrifices to try and protect him in the hope that he would survive and one day return home.
The film never really goes into what Lu did other than his having been a professor which might have been enough on its own, or probe into very much detail about his life being re-educated. Bar a final reveal and a general feeling of melancholy, it doesn’t much delve into Feng’s life either other than her devotion in waiting for Lu. In fact, it sort of leaves The Cultural Revolution to one side as much as it can. However, its ambiguity is almost an analogy for the way modern China wishes to think about its past - both remembering and not at the same time. Lu endures all, suffers all only to return to a world where he doesn’t quite exist. Patiently, he tries to undo this painful knot of memory that has paralysed his wife’s brain so that he might regain something of what he’s lost, but the more he tries to show her the less she seems to see. She can only recognise him as the man he is now, a kindly neighbour, and not as the man that was taken from her all those years ago and for whom she still waits. There are those like Lu who are desperately trying to reconcile the past with the present so they can move forward, but there are also those like Feng who are unable to come to terms with everything they’ve suffered and accept the now for what is. The result of this is a kind of numb limbo which leaves everybody waiting at the station for a train which will never arrive.
Coming Home probably goes as far it’s allowed to go, but that still isn’t terribly far. As a film about China’s turbulent recent history it’s a start, but doesn’t begin to approach some of those darker themes with any kind of depth. That said, it’s really much more of an old-fashioned melodrama about a faithful husband who comes home to his devoted wife after many years of enforced separation only to find that, far from having “forgotten” him, she can’t forget the him that was taken away long enough to recognise that he’s come home. Fans of romantic drama will find a lot more to like than those hoping for a hard-hitting examination of horrors within The Cultural Revolution, but Coming Home does do what it promises in a typically polished style. A little bit stuffy and noticeably restrained, Coming Home is not exactly a late career masterpiece from the director of Raise the Red Lantern, but it does at least open a few doors.
Coming Home recieves its UK Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on the Saturday 28th February 2015 with an additional screening on Sunday 1st March.