Coming Home

Coming Home ★★★★

Chinese director Zhang Yimou has a vague reputation as a cinematic mouthpiece for the communist government, but after seeing his period drama Coming Home, I no longer give credence to it. He can direct as many Olympic ceremonies as he likes, and none would wash out the bitter misery his government inflicts here. Adapted from author Geling Yan's novel The Criminal Yu Lanshi, Coming Home is set during and after the Cultural Revolution, in which untold millions were persecuted, abused, and murdered. One such individual caught up in Mao's paranoia is Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), an academic sentenced to hard labor but recently escaped. His wife Feng (Gong Li) is desperate to see him, but ballerina daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who barely remembers her father, is upset that this stain on her family is impeding her from getting the roles she deserves. Dandan alerts the authorities as her parents are about to meet, and in the confusion, Lu is recaptured and Feng suffers a head injury. A few years later, the Cultural Revolution has ended and Lu is released, but Feng has lost the mental capacity to recognize him. Slightly melodramatic but achingly sad, Coming Home is a Kafkaesque nightmare for its characters, as they all have to thank the state for removing a subversive member from their family in one period and then thank them for his return in a later time, all while having lost the ability to truly reunite. There's a Jurassic-Bark-level of emotional agony to this film, but Zhang leavens it with enough sweetness to keep it from being unbearable. It's hard to believe China would allow this film to be shown, as it makes government oppression real and intimate, not only depicting the way a distant state can crush its citizens but how that same pressure induces cracks in more intimate social units. If Zhang had to make several paeans to Chi-comm greatness in exchange for Coming Home, then that might be a deal worth making. B+