Zhang Yimou Introduces 'Coming Home' Amid Debate on Chinese History

Coming Home - H 2014
LeVision Pictures

Coming Home - H 2014

Fans hope the Gong Li-starring film will signal a new creative period for the director, who is often seen as China's most naturally gifted.

BEIJING — Just days after Oliver Stone called on Chinese filmmakers to deal with their history during the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, director Zhang Yimou unveiled the cast of his upcoming drama Coming Home, which deals with the impact of that era.

The emotional period piece features Chinese stars Gong Li and Chen Daoming and tells the story of an intellectual who is forced into marriage, flees to America and is sent to a labor camp upon his return to China.

VIDEO: Chinese Teaser Offers First Look at Zhang Yimou's 'Coming Home'

An event to launch the film, which opens in China on May 16, was held Monday in Beijing and attended by Zhang, LeVision head Zhang Zhao, Li, Chen, rising star Zhang Huiwen and other cast and crew.

Coming Home, which will have a special out-of-competition screening at Cannes this year, reunites Zhang and Li. They were once romantically linked, and they produced some of their most acclaimed work together (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern).

The Cultural Revolution was a period of ideological extremism, unleashed by Chairman Mao Zedong, which destroyed millions of lives in China between 1966 and 1976. Mao ordered a return to Communist ideological roots, prompting a frenzy, as Red Guards attacked intellectuals, children denounced their parents and anyone with an education was forced into the countryside to work on collective farms, including the family of current president Xi Jinping.

Actors were imprisoned and led around in dunce hats. In one horrific case, a Shanghai actress, Shang Guanyunzhu, who was said to have had an affair with Mao, committed suicide by jumping out a window to escape torture by Red Guards.

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Zhang Yimou described Coming Home as a love story of joy and sorrow.

“The era is the background, but what touches the audience is the love," he said. "It is universal. It is OK if the young people don’t understand history — they will be moved by love.”

Zhang added that Coming Home meant getting back to a creative place of shooting films quietly.

Chen said, “Coming Home is a film that reflects on a big era through a small family.”

The pic is being produced by Le Vision Pictures, which Zhang joined last year as a creative director in an effort to get his juices flowing again after a period in the critical wilderness.

It’s been a rollercoaster few years for the filmmaker. Earlier this year, Zhang was fined $1.2 million for breaching China's one-child policy, and his last film, Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, did not perform particularly well.

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In February, Zhang reportedly signed on for the Universal project The Parsifal Mosaic, an adaptation of the 1982 Robert Ludlum novel.

LeVision said Coming Home will be screened in Imax 4K, a first for a Chinese film.

LeVision chief Zhao spoke of how his family had suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution. “My father disappeared. My mom sat in bed for a month and didn’t move,” he revealed.

Last week, Stone, speaking at the ongoing Beijing International Film Festival, said no true co-production is possible until filmmakers in China address Mao’s legacy.