The first act of Zhang Yimou’s new film, Coming Home, is excellent. Set in the backdrop of Mao-communist China, there is an authentic and urgent tone to the narrative, as we meet Feng (Gong Li) and her daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) after they learn that Lu (Chen Daoming), Feng’s husband and Dandan’s father, has escaped imprisonment after being in a labor camp for over ten years due to undisclosed political crimes. Lu and Feng scheme to find a way to meet together, despite Dandan’s complaints, and during the meetup are caught in a scuffle with police. Lu is taken away and Feng is left traumatized by the near reunion with her husband. Years later, Lu is released after the end of the Cultural Revolution only to discover that Feng doesn’t recognize him, afflicted with amnesia. The rest of the film documents his desperation in trying convince Feng that he’s the man she is tirelessly waiting to come home.
It’s after Lu’s arrest (orchestrated by Dandan who’s dancing career is put on hold due to her father’s outlaw status) when the film veers abruptly from fast paced, visually exciting and emotional drama to a maudlin, soapy and redundant mess. If the film could have sustained the energy it struck in the first act for the entire movie it would have been one the best of the year so far. Instead, hindered greatly by a lacking and repetitive script by Zou Jingzhi, the film meanders, treading water for nearly over an hour of running time as it tries, not unlike Lu, to convince us that the film is worth it.
This is all made so frustrating due to how strong the first half hour is and how beautifully it strikes a graceful balance between familial and political drama. With Yimou at the helm of the film, the artist behind such striking and visceral films such as Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the film itself was always going be visually breathtaking. While I’m more accustomed to his larger than life direction (think the bamboo fight in House of Flying Daggers) I was interested in seeing a version of him that was more toned down and subdued and was pleasantly surprised to see that even if the story lacked the “epic” feeling of some of his prior films, he never loses his edge. There’s an urgency to his shots, no one frame lingers longer than it needs to. The faces of Lu, Feng and Dandan are studiously shot as they’re the shoulders the story rests on, and the actors are all uniformly great.
Li is the undisputed star of the film, which is a vehicle for her and Yimou to team up again, even if it’s for an overall lesser film, she is undoubtedly great. However, it’s Huiwen’s Dandan who gets the most interesting character arc of the film, and Daoming who delivers the most heart achingly raw performance. Dandan is, unfairly, painted to be the film’s main antagonist at the start of the film. While all of her actions are done out of youthful selfishness and ignorance, they’re easier to latch onto then acts done by the faceless, anonymous government officials that imprisoned Lu. Dandan’s growth throughout the film as she grows up and realizes what she’s done, realizes that her ambition to be a dancer is long gone due to actions out of her control. Her fall out with her mother and growing relationship with her father is the richest, and most poignant storyline of the film.
Daoming is asked to do the same thing a lot in this film, whether it be coming up with ways to jog Feng’s memory or playing the calming voice of reason, it would have been easy for him to rest on the familiarity of each scene, rather than reaching for more than he was given. His face is one that displays so many thoughts and emotions that go unsaid and the film is lucky to have had him in their arsenal because, as I’ve said, the script is a near disaster. By the film’s end I found it difficult to care about the outcome, even as it was written to be aggressively emotionally manipulative.
The film is stunning to look at, the colors are vibrant and Yimou makes the most of the natural beauty surrounding his film, but the story is hollow, the narrative is stilted, and when it ended the only feeling I was inclined to was my want to revisit House of Flying Daggers. Technically gorgeous with a half baked story, Coming Home is far from Yimou’s best despite performers giving their all and an expected artistic gaze. If you’re looking to watch a Yimou film, you’re better looking to his older library than his current movie.