" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

MRQE Top Critic

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For more than a decade, filmgoers wondered whether Chinese director Zhang Yimou would ever again work with Gong Li, the actress who starred in some of his best movies: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to name three landmark films from the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Zhang and Li did reunite for 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, a spectacle-heavy costume drama of the kind that Zhang seemed to be gravitating toward.

Daoming is Coming Home to Li
Daoming is Coming Home to Li

Nine years later, Zhang and Gong have teamed again, this time in an intimately scaled drama about the devastating ramifications of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Oddly, Coming Home, which should have knowledgeable audiences quaking with anticipation, hasn’t set off a roar of anticipation on the art house circuit. I’m not sure why.

Although Coming Home doesn’t match the emotional heft or exquisite beauty of the best of Zhang and Gong’s collaborations, it certainly carves out a worthy place of its own.

Gong plays Feng Wanyu, a woman whose husband (Chen Daoming) is imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. When Daoming’s Lu escapes, the couple’s ambitious, teen-age daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) shrugs off any association with her supposedly subversive father.

With Zhang compressing time, Lu is recaptured; the Cultural Revolution ends; and Lu is free to return home.

By this time, Dan Dan has shed the infection of rabid Maoist ideology, but Feng no longer recognizes her husband. She even mistakes him for a sadistic interrogator from Maoist days.

We’re never sure whether Feng suffers from dementia or from some narrowly focused form of amnesia, an uncertainty that encourages us to view the movie as a meditation on the psychological toll of Mao’s vicious cultural purge.

A persistent Lu tries to re-establish his life as a husband, an activity that eventually centers on scenes in which he reads Feng letters he wrote from prison. She still doesn’t recognize him, but they become linked in this exercise at restoring lost memories.

Although there are images of sad beauty in Coming Home, the film takes on some of the modesty of its meager settings, notably Feng’s small apartment or the street-level room Lu rents to be near her.

In its quiet way, Coming Home raises important questions about how to re-define normalcy in the wake of the kind of upheaval from which some never recover.

One can only hope that Gong, 49, and Zhang, now 63, will find material that allows them to collaborate again. They may never recapture the magic of the movies that helped announce the international rebirth of Chinese cinema almost 30 years ago, but they clearly know how to tap into each other’s best artistic instincts.