'Coming Home': Cannes Review

'Coming Home,' Zhang Yimou (Out of Competition)

Chinese veteran Zhang Yimou has appeared in competition in Cannes three times before -- winning the Jury Grand Prix in 1994 for To Live. His latest, his 12th collaboration with muse Gong Li, is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of China’s cultural revolution. Coming Home will play out of competition in Cannes but is certain to attract attention as the sole Chinese film in selection, especially after receiving the stamp of approval from Sony Classics, which has picked up Coming Home for multiple territories, including North America. (Sales: Wild Bunch)

A meandering and frequently tepid love story that also wants to be an important commentary but is too weightless to be effective as either.

Zhang Yimou and Gong Li reteam for the big screen adaptation of author Yan Geling’s 'Coming Home.'

After a semi-detour into epic period drama (Curse of the Golden Flower), WWII drama (The Flowers of War), and pseudo-noir thriller (the Sino-Blood Simple and totally gonzo A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop) Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou slips back into his comfort zone for what is essentially a tragic romance with Coming Home. Reuniting again with his chief muse, Gong Li, Zhang flirts with historical criticism and reflection on the impact of past social policies but pulls up short and settles for a plodding romance that is as lightweight as it is aimless.

Though Coming Home is stately and polished, typical of Zhang, the film’s lack of any real thematic thrust or significant commentary will hamper its reception in markets outside of Mainland China. This is a film that speaks to a specific Chinese demographic, and so it will likely achieve moderate success at home. The above-the-title talent assures it a spot on the festival circuit until modest art house releases overseas, though it’s not going to reach Raise the Red Lantern or To Live heights of success.

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Based on another novel by author Yan Geling (whom Zhang adapted for The Flowers of War) Coming Home begins with academic Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming, Aftershock) hiding near a Beijing railway station after escaping a labor camp. It is the early 1970s and the Cultural Revolution is officially waning, but for Lu’s budding ballerina daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen in her debut) it is very much part of her life. Called into the propaganda director’s (Guo Tao, Drug War, in a cameo) office at her dance school one afternoon, she finds her mother, Feng Wanyu (Gong), already there. They’re informed that Lu escaped, and that if he contacts them they should turn him in. The young, naïve Dandan agrees, but Yu is clearly torn. Naturally, he shows up at their apartment, and though he doesn’t see Yu, Lu runs into Dandan -- who promptly turns him in, bitter for losing the lead role in a ballet due to politics and appearances. The next day Dandan and the authorities descend on Lu and Yu’s train station rendezvous, which ends in disaster. Lu is taken back into custody, Yu suffers a blow to the head and Dandan isolates herself from her mother for years to come.

Try as he might, Zhang fails to recapture the searing emotional dramatics of his earlier work, even though Coming Home is securely in his wheelhouse. The train station encounter should have an ominous sense of foreboding rather the feel of predictable plot beats. It is simply set up for more rote melodrama to come; the entire segment is ultimately meaningless and is a waste of 20 minutes. Zhang does manage a suitably tense non-encounter with Lu lurking in the apartment hallways, all grey shadows and deadening concrete stairwells, but it adds up to nothing. Yu’s hesitation in the propaganda director’s office and her panicked indecision upon hearing Lu at the door are the meant to convey the couple’s devotion to each other, and Gong is typically affecting -- with few words -- in both scenes, but beyond that the relationship doesn’t really gel into a significant one. It remains an intangible idea rather than an eternal love story.

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When the Cultural Revolution finally ends, Lu returns to radically different home. Dandan has given up dancing and works at a factory. Yu is suffering psychogenic amnesia and has thrown Dandan out of the house. This is where the story truly begins. Devastated that his beloved (so we’re told) wife either doesn’t remember him or confuses him with mysterious Party member Feng, Lu sets out to coax her memory of their life together to the surface. The few things she does recall is that she has to get Lu at the train station on the 5th of the month (any month) and that she hates Feng. That’s the limit of character development as well. Lu and Yu are more archetypes than living, breathing people. His dedication manifests in his repeated tries to get through to Yu -- photos, music, letters -- and his better nature in forgiving Dandan and her misguided youthful fervor. Yu’s mental fracture comes out in doddering physicality, dewy-eyed sadness when Lu doesn’t appear.

There are myriad issues that Zhang and screenwriter Zou Jingzhi dangle in the film: Dandan is drawn as a true believer, at least initially, that is willing to put her ballet ambitions ahead of her family. There’s no real exploration of how she came to these decisions and other than a few tears over her parents’ shattered marriage, no reflection on the consequences of her actions. The muddled timeline does nothing to illuminate the source of Yu’s mental anguish: Was it the blow to the head the day Lu was recaptured? The unwanted sexual advances of a bureaucrat? The power of unwanted memories to define us, and the timely specter of punishing social dissent are among the other themes and issues Zhang skips over in favor of a weepy memory-loss love story. Credit must be given for believably downbeat conclusion that doesn’t strain for a false happy ending, though without the visual vibrancy of Lantern or even the straight up weirdness of Noodle Shop, Coming Home sinks into a conventional tragic romance rut that not even engaging performances by Gong and Chen can save.

Producer: Zhang Zhao
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen
Screenwriter: Zou Jingzhi, based on the novel by Yan Geling
Executive producer: David Linde, Pang Liwei, Shan Dongbin, Huang Ziyan, Gillian Zhao, Shan Baoquan, Karen Fu
Director of Photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production Designer: Lin Chaoxiang, Liu Jiang
Music: Chen Qigang
Costume designer: Wang Qiuping
Editor: Meng Peicong, Zhang Mo
No rating, 109 minutes