Though not as famous a director/actor pairing as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro or Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have made vast contributions to Chinese cinema. Zhang, who belongs to his country's Fifth Generation of filmmakers, has picked up laurels from the world's most prestigious film festivals, directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, and risen to the status of a cinematic luminary.
Gong has been there through most of it: Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, and To Live are just a few of their collaborations, which find moments of grace amid political strife and times of change.
Their latest, Coming Home, continues that tradition. Set shortly after the Cultural Revolution, it concerns a professor named Lu (Chen Daoming) returning home to his wife Feng (Gong) and daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) after a long imprisonment. How he came to find himself in a labor camp for many years is never explicitly revealed, but it was almost certainly political in nature.
The escape attempt that opens the film is thwarted by none other than Dandan. Young, impressionable, and fully indoctrinated, the girl has few memories of her father and scarcely hesitates to turn him in. Her recitation of Party talking points is that of a devotee memorizing scripture, with everything else secondary.
By contrast, her mother harbors such subversive notions as family superseding political allegiance, though her survival instinct precludes her from speaking such blasphemy aloud.
Gong is always exceptional when paired with Zhang. The filmmaker captures her evocative presence like no one else, putting it to especially devastating use here by dampening it. The physical and emotional trauma of her husband's failed escape has rendered Feng incapable of recognizing him, and she reacts violently when he claims to be the man she married. She's a shell of her former self who's yet to forgive Dandan for snitching on dear old dad, effectively leaving her alone.
The youngest of the three delivers the most moving performance. Dandan's parents have already formulated their own worldviews by the time we meet them, but her sensibilities have been filtered through an all-encompassing ideology that places little value on the individual.
She's a gifted dancer, a skill she hopes to put toward a production of The Red Detachment of Women. Despite being the best in her class, she loses the lead role thanks to the sins of her father.
Zhang is careful not to place as much blame on his characters as they place on each other. The actual antagonists are far off screen, somewhere in the upper echelons of the Party who pitted the trio against one another.
This isn't exactly uncharted territory — in fact, this summer's Phoenix involves a husband's inability (or perhaps refusal) to recognize his wife in the aftermath of World War II — but Zhang consistently makes it his own. We keep waiting for a moment of recognition a la Chaplin's City Lights (still among the most beautiful endings of all time), and it keeps eluding us. Eventually we start to wonder whether that would even be the ideal resolution to this quandary. Has too much time passed? Is Feng consciously repressing her memories? If these doubts are shared by Zhang, he doesn't show it.
This sense of anticipation, along with Lang Lang's gentle piano score, is quietly wrenching. Coming Home is understated and melodramatic all at once, with Zhang insisting on not fully indulging either inclination.
He shows a tremendous amount of restraint in delaying the seemingly inevitable, thereby getting us to hang on the fractured family unit's every word and action. The material is pure soap opera, but the execution is high art.
Each of Lu's schemes to kickstart Feng's memory — pretending to arrive on the train she expects him to be on, hand-delivering letters he'd written to her over the years — is as sweet as it is sad.
Zhang stages these as romantic gestures, but also as statements on Lu's increasing desperation and hopelessness. His wife knows him as the "letter-reading comrade" who helps her connect to her husband, oblivious to his true identity. This goes on for months, then longer, and hope eventually starts to dwindle.
Our ability to get used to anything is often thought of as a kind of strength. In Coming Home it's also an implicit admission that things may never get better, that sometimes all we can do is go through the motions and trust that tomorrow will be a little better.
Coming Home, directed by Zhang Yimou
Edina, opens Friday