Starring Li Gong, Daoming Chen, Huiwen Zhang
From award winning director Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) comes one of the year’s most emotionally gut wrenching films. Zhang, known for his colorful and elaborate visions, opts for opaque tones in a story that explores one families struggle to survive separation and mental illness. Like a page from a classic Meryl Streep or Clint Eastwood romance novel, Jingzhi Zou’s screenplay is sparse with words as Xiaoding Zhao’s (The Flowers of War) cinematography carries most of the story. Li Gong (Memoirs of a Geisha, Curse of the Golden Flower) delivers a heartbreaking performance as a mother and wife suffering from psychological amnesia. Viewers familiar with the Oscar nominated Away From Her (2006) might find themselves in familiar territory, but this Chinese drama is classical epic storytelling.
When Lu Yanshi (Chen) returns home after 20 years of being a political prisoner he expects a big welcome from his grown daughter and devoted wife. Instead Lu finds his precious Yu (Gong) suffering from severe memory loss and nearly estranged from their daughter Dan Dan (Chen). Yu’s mind seems to have stopped in the past, she still thinks her grown daughter is a ballerina, even though she hasn’t danced for years. They try to explain that Lu has returned, but her mind doesn’t recognize the man he has become. After months of trying, Lu realizes the only way to be in his wife’s life is in a different role. So he has all the letters he wrote her while in prison delivered and becomes known to her as “the letter reader”.
This Chinese drama is classical epic storytelling
There are a few scenes that felt overly dramatic in the first segment of the film that show the difficulty of Yu as a single mother trying to raise a stubborn and selfish daughter. Coming Home is split into three segments, and they only get more heartbreaking as Lu and the audience come to realize that in 1979, there is no real treatment for the type of amnesia Yu is suffering from. The heartbreak is not that she has selective memory loss, but that she waits for Lu every day, every second, unable to comprehend her own realty. In an attempt to jog her memory, Lu has a letter delivered announcing his arrival on the 5th, she becomes obsessed with the 5th and walks to the train station every month on the 5th to look for her missing husband.
Of course Coming Home only works if it can convince the viewer of the specific selective memory loss, if you can’t buy into that, the romanticized idea of true love is void. It’s certainly ends up a love story, although it takes absorbing the full picture to get to the films rhetorical question to the audience, would you stay by the side of a person who doesn’t remember your face? Coming Home also flirts with the same notion Julianne Moore’s Oscar winning Still Alice did last year, but that was a simple performance vehicle, where this is a sprawling epic spanning a lifetime. The clever use of imagery here, most importantly the handmade sign that just says “Lu” is one of the key elements in watering the audiences’ eyes, along with the simple but effective score.
An epic, emotional powerhouse of a film.