July 21, 2016
Coming Home – China, 2014
For the first twenty-five minutes, Coming Home is a wonder to behold, and then it stumbles, almost as if it is unsure what it is supposed to be and what it is trying to say. At times, it resembles a Nicolas Sparks film, filled with sentimentality and forced emotions; other moments may remind viewers of aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for while revenge is not necessarily on the mind of the film’s female protagonist, she seems to have an extremely rough time forming new memories. The role is played by the always reliable Li Gong, yet not even she can convey a purpose to what we are seeing, nor for that matter can she make the film’s heavy-handed and obvious symbolism feel less forced.
The film, directed by the legendary Yimou Zhang, is set in the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, and what it depicts about that time, while not being as novel as it once was, is still enormously powerful. In its early scenes, we learn that a man named Lu (Daoming Chen) has escaped from custody. His wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong), who has not seen him for the last ten years, is asked to pledge that if he contacts her, she will facilitate his re-apprehension. This is also asked of their teenage daughter, Dandan, who acquiesces immediately. Dandan (Huiwen Zhang) is not only a believer in the revolution but also a skilled ballet dancer with real potential for greatness. But there’s more to her pledge than that. She has no relationship with her father, no history to draw upon when she hears vile accusations leveled against him. This part of the film ends with the family divided both personally and physically, and the rift seems wide enough for it to be permanent. All of this, I was greatly moved by, and I was excited about seeing what would come next.
At this point, the film flashes forward in time. The revolution has ended unsuccessfully, Mao is dead, and China is attempting to put its fragile pieces back together. In fact, that could well be the metaphor for the remainder of the film, yet on a smaller scale. For the rest of the film, we watch as the family tries unsuccessfully to come to terms with the events of the past; all the while, the specter of the Cultural Revolution hangs over them, haunting their every move. One character in particular, Yu, is figuratively frozen in time, unable to remember events that occurred after the fateful day that concludes the first part of the film, and therefore neither she, Lu, or Dandan is able to forgive, forget, or move on. They seem stuck in time, prisoners to memories that no one should have, let alone have an active role in.
And it is this very theme that grounds the film and prevents it from becoming what it was clearly intended to be. In fact, the film begins to resemble the very thing that one character is advised to create, a sense of déjà vu. Scenes begin to be repetitive, questions that should be asked are unnecessarily put aside so that they can come up later on, and what should be a clearly understandable metaphor becomes muddled in tediousness. Yes, many people found it tough to move on during this time in history; yes, many also found it hard to forgive themselves for some of the choices they made; and yes there were those who took advantage of people who were emotionally vulnerable through sweet-sounding promises of assistance and additional resources. However, by making Yu mentally incapable of dealing with these things, the film has nowhere to go. It becomes a mystery into why she is that way, rather than an investigation into just what it takes for the family, a clear metaphor for the country as a whole, to forgive and move on. In other words, the film is a little like Groundhog Day, sans the ability to learn and mature from being able to repeat actions.
And so the film develops a pattern – try, fail, contemplate, try again, fail again, contemplate again. This goes on for more than an hour, and while revelations are indeed forthcoming – some of them quite tragic – they remain shrouded in intentionally vague recollections that offer more questions than answers, thus, necessitating further attempts to elicit information. And thus it repeats itself – try, fail, contemplate, try again, fail again, contemplate again. In truth, it’s a bit tiresome and much less interesting than the subject matter and director would lead you to expect it to be. Good performances all around, but a disappointment nonetheless. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars
*Coming Home is in Mandarin with English subtitles.