The fictional protagonist of George Orwell’s “1984,” Winston Smith, comes to a stark realization after enduring the book’s tortures: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” In the movie “Coming Home,” the heroine arrives at a similar conclusion. But rather than comprehend it, she simply lives it.
Director Zhang Yimou’s film, a poignant tale of suffering under the nonfictional dictatorship of Mao Zedong, is basically a domestic melodrama set during the Cultural Revolution in a provincial Chinese city, where Wanyu (Gong Li), a schoolteacher, lives with her teenage daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen).
The missing member of the family is Lu (Chen Daoming), a former college professor who has been sent to a labor camp.
Though Maoist political authorities make only brief appearances here, their influence is as ubiquitous as that of Orwell’s Big Brother. “Coming Home” is about totalitarian mind control, even if its central oppression is self- imposed.
Dandan doesn’t remember her father, and has been taught to hate him as a “rightist” traitor to the revolution, An aspiring ballerina, she also resents Lu because his purported crimes may bar her from her goal: the lead role in “The Red Detachment of Women,” a clunky political dance pageant.
When Lu escapes and returns home, Wanyu fears for both her daughter and her husband. But Dandan thinks only of herself and her future in Mao’s propaganda apparatus. Lu is soon re-captured, in a brilliantly choreographed scene at the local train station.
Suddenly, three years later, the Cultural Revolution is over and Lu is declared to have been “rehabilitated.” He returns home, where Wanyu waits anxiously for her husband. Yet she is unable to recognize the old man at her door as the one who was first taken away. Physical trauma may explain her amnesia, although eventually a psychological reason is revealed.
All Lu can do is take up residence across the street, where he devises pretexts to see his wife, who welcomes him as a piano tuner and a reader of her husband’s letters from prison, which have been written so tightly on small scraps of paper that they’re nearly illegible. But sometimes she’s terrified, certain that Lu is a man that she fears from her past.
Zhang and Gong have made eight films together, mostly between 1987 and 1995, including such sweeping, vibrantly colored dramas as “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern.” But “Coming Home” is in another key altogether, both emotionally and visually. The beautifully composed shots are studies in shadow and sunlight, drizzle and grime.
The movie’s principal limitation is its lack of narrative momentum in the second half. Once Lu returns, there is little more that can occur. But the narrowly conscribed story suggests wider themes: Dandan’s reconciliation with her returned father is a different sort of rehabilitation, and Wanyu embodies an entire country’s collective amnesia.
Perhaps that’s why this elegant but downbeat parable was a hit with Chinese audiences. They welcomed the opportunity to remember.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row cinemas. Contains violence which is mostly psychological.
In Mandarin with subtitles.