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Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) and Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner, just as his wife is injured in an accident. Released during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, he finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife has amnesia and remembers little of her past. Unable to recognize Lu, she patiently waits for her husband's return. A stranger alone in the heart of his broken family, Lu Yanshi determines to resurrect their past together and reawaken his wife's memory.Written by
"Coming Home" is a difficult journey, but extremely rewarding.
Sometimes a movie comes along that requires your patience, but is worth every minute of your time. "Coming Home" (PG-13, 1:49) is one of those movies. It's a Chinese film, which, for most of us, means subtitles, but this film is from Yimou Zhang, the director of "Hero" and "House of the Flying Daggers", and stars Gong Li (also known as Li Gong), who starred in "House of the Flying Daggers" and "Memoirs of a Geisha", as well as "Hannibal Rising" and "Miami Vice". This film's pace is slow, but an open-minded audience member's reward will be a dramatic and heart-breaking romance that you won't soon forget.
The setting is China, during Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution". Starting in 1966, and only really ending with Mao's death in 1976, this was a nationwide effort to purge remnants of capitalism and even Chinese culture which ran contrary to Chairman Mao's personal interpretation of communism. Party officials and local police publicly humiliated and harassed people, seized property, relocated many Chinese citizens, tortured some and arbitrarily imprisoned others. One of those was a college professor named Lu Yanshi (Daoming Chen), whose time in Chinese labor camps kept him away from his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and young daughter Dandan (Huiwen Zhang) for a total of 20 years.
As the film opens, Feng and her teenage daughter are summoned to the office of a party official who informs them that Lu has escaped from prison. The official sternly reminds them that failure to report any contact with Lu is a crime. The thoroughly indoctrinated Dandan responds obediently by spouting a line of communist propaganda. Feng merely responds that she understands. Lu does try to rejoin his family, resulting in some of the most tense and best-acted scenes I've ever watched on the big screen.
It is only after the Cultural Revolution ends that Lu can return home safely. By that time, Feng is suffering from a type of amnesia that requires her to refer to notes so she can accomplish ordinary daily tasks and, tragically, also renders her unable to recognize her husband. She remembers Feng as a young man, but when she finally sees him face to face, she mistakes him for a party official whom she hates and she kicks him out of the house. No one, can convince her that the man she has turned away really is Lu – not the local communist party officials and not even Feng's own daughter who has grown up to regret the ways she had denied or been disloyal to her father. Neither the audience, nor Lu himself knows whether, the next time Feng sees him, she'll mistake him for an old enemy, think that he is a piano tuner or a friendly neighbor, or even acknowledge him at all.
Lu takes up residence in an abandoned store across the street and his daughter, now living on her own, establishes a relationship with Lu and works with him to try overcoming her mother's amnesia. Feng receives a long-delayed letter from Lu telling her that he's coming home "on the 5th of the month". She readies the house in anticipation, even as she sees Lu around the neighborhood on a regular basis, but never recognizes him. Lu and Dandan talk to Feng's doctor and try various strategies, direct and indirect, hoping to get Feng to remember her heart-broken husband. Meanwhile, on the 5th of every month, Feng journeys to the train station and holds a hand-made sign with her husband's name on it until the last of the passengers have descended the long, stone staircase and the workers close the large, metal gates.
"Coming Home" is a combination of the 1965 classic romance "Doctor Zhivago" and the more modern romance in 2004's "The Notebook", but with a distinct Chinese sensibility. The setting, however, is merely background. This film has the potential to deeply affect people regardless of age or nationality. The acting is truly outstanding, especially from Gong Li who lives completely in every moment of this film, acts with every cell of her body and gives a performance for the ages. This film is so well written, directed, acted and edited that it requires no understanding of the Chinese language and no knowledge of Chinese history or culture to enjoy and appreciate this timeless tale of love, loss and redemption. It may sound trite, but the language of love truly is universal. That, and the other emotions and relationships that are part of this story require nothing more than a human heart to understand. I'd rather that this film had incorporated a little more variation in tone and pacing, but there is no denying this film's power to use the emotions of its characters to touch the emotions of its audience. "A-"
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