When I read Zhang Yimou's name, the first thing I think about is pageantry and majesty; Flying Daggers, and Red Lanterns; beautiful balletic battles and rich fabric; and color, color, color--and also poisonous family relationships, best exemplified in Curse of the Golden Flower.
And then there are Zhang's other movies: parochial, quiet, and filled with loving relationships. Coming Home is one of these. It is a small, gray movie, mostly shot in one neighborhood, and revolving around a family of three It is, however, very beautiful. While it lacks the physical beauty of the movies above, it has a deep interior beauty.
The movie begins in the daughter, Dan Dan's, ballet school where she is trying out for the lead role in the ballet, Red Detachment of Women. She and her mother, Feng Wanyu, a teacher, are called to the school office where they hear that Yu's husband, Lu Yanshi, has escaped from the labor camp where he has been imprisoned for 10 years for crimes against the Cultural Revolution. Yu and Dan Dan are asked it they have seen him, and warned that they must turn him in if they do. Dan Dan, who was only three when her father left, is all compliance, but Yu is not so sure. Why, she wonders, did he escape? Had they done something to him to make him decide he had to leave?
It seems that the reason that he left the camp was that he wanted so badly to see his wife and daughter. He goes to the house and hides in the attic. He has an encounter with his daughter on the stairs, and she tells him that she doesn't want to know him and that he must leave.
Lu is not willing to leave, though, until he sees Yu. He knocks on the door, and Yu, who has heard noises in the attic and knows who it must be, locks the door against him. Then they both stand on their own sides of the door, hands on the doorknob, locked in an intense stillness that is reminiscent of the Song of Solomon.
My lover put his hand in through the opening:
my innermost being trembled because of him.
I rose to open for my lover,
my hands dripping myrrh:
upon the handles of the lock.
I opened for my lover--
but my lover had turned and gone!
But Lu has slipped a note under the door, asking Yu to meet him at the boat dock the next morning. Yu arrives for the meeting and when she finally sees Lu waving to her from a different level, she finds that the police, having been informed by Dan Dan, are there waiting for him, and in a very painful scene the couple is once again separated.
Three years later, the Cultural Revolution ends and Lu comes home. He is met by Dan Dan who is no longer dancing, or living with her mother. Puzzled as to why this is so, and why Yu did not come to meet him, he goes to the house where he finds little notes all over the room reminding Yu of things she needs to do. Sadly, one of the notes reads, “Don't lock the door.” When she comes in, she does not recognize him. In fact, she believes him to be an enemy and insists that he leave. He does so and the chairwoman of the Communist Party in the neighborhood (a very sympathetic neighbor) arranges for him to live in a small room across the street.
Yu is suffering from a selective form of amnesia, and the doctor suggests to Lu that experiencing things that they used to do together might jog her memory. Lu tries everything that he can think of. When the letter that Lu wrote when he left camp saying that he will be home on the 5th arrives belatedly, Wu is beside herself waiting for the day of his arrival. Lu arranges to take her to the dock, and walks down the plank with the arriving passengers, but she looks right past him, and never sees him.
This search for Lu at the docks repeats itself month after month on the 5th and Lu's patience and persistence seem unending. He sits in his room across the street, and watches her lit window, awaiting any opportunity to awaken her memory. Even in his failure to make his wife recognize him, he finds ways to bring the family together in unusual ways, even bringing about a reconciliation between mother and daughter. As he steadfastly watches over his wife and daughter, we see him grow in a sacrificial love in which Lu's focus gradually changes from achieving the relationship he wants to serving those he loves.
Gong Li, who excellently portrays Feng Wanyu in the film, has been in quite a few Zhang Yimou movies including her role as the empress in Curse of the Golden Flower. The more I think about Coming Home and Curse of the Golden Flower in juxtaposition to each other, the more I see that they are opposite to each other in almost every way. The characters in Curse... live in a world of wealth, beauty, power, and hatred. Those in Coming Home live lives that are more-or-less controlled by the Communist Party. Everything is drab and shabby, but filled with love. It's interesting to me that Zhang Yimou has chosen to make films in two such disparate genres.
Today, I watched another Zhang Yimou film, The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale and thought it was pretty much all right. I can't remember that I've ever had such a tepid reaction to a Zhang movie before. Although all the characters in the movie except Bale were either Chinese or Japanese, it had a very American tone, and was mostly in English. His next movie, which will be released in the U.S. Next year, The Great Wall, stars Matt Damon along with Willem Dafoe and and an actor I don't know, Pedro Pascal, from Game of Thrones. It will be entirely in English. I'm not too sure I'm happy about the direction Zhang's career seems to be taking, but it might be better than I think.
Red Detachment of Women, by the way, is ballet that seems to be as famous in China as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker is here. It was the ballet that was performed for Nixon when he visited China.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.