In Zhang Yimou’s ‘Coming Home’ History is Muted But Not Silent

by Eva Shan Chou/ October 2, 2015 (ChinaFile)

Coming Home, directed by the celebrated Zhang Yimou and released in the U.S. last week, begins as a man escapes a labor camp in China’s northwest and tries to return home. But he is captured when he and his wife attempt to meet, after their daughter turns him in in exchange for the promise of the lead role in the ballet The Red Detachment of Women. The rest of the movie takes place three years later, in 1976, after the Cultural Revolution has ended.

coming_home_posterThe man, Lu Yanshi, is politically rehabilitated and allowed to return home, but his wife no longer recognizes him. The movie then follows his successive stratagems, aided by his daughter, to rouse her memory; eventually, he accepts a role that allows him to remain near to her—reading aloud his own letters to her as if he were not the one who had written them.

The film reflects a familiar pattern of Zhang’s: tight focus on a man and a woman plus a younger person, treated with a closed-off intensity that draws the audience into a situation that becomes more and more unusual, set against a backdrop of momentous events in Chinese history. The cinematography and pacing are those of a master. The performances he elicits from his actors are excellent: Chen Daoming gives an especially fine performance as Lu; Gong Li, Zhang’s one-time muse, plays his wife, Feng Wanyu; the newcomer Zhang Huiwen is their daughter, Dandan. The result is an immensely moving film about the human cost of history, the survival of love, and the reconstitution of a family.

And yet, the film seems to use history mainly to increase pathos; there is no real engagement with historical events. In China, Coming Home set a record for box office receipts for art films, grossing 295 million RMB in its first two weeks. But given the extent of official censorship, it’s a safe bet that almost no one under 35 in the audience had any prior knowledge of the events that form the backdrop to the story, or of any other traumatic events in post-1949 Chinese history. Nor, after viewing Coming Home, would such a person have learned much more. Reviews on the film’s release in the U.S. seem to reflect a similar disconnect with the past—they appreciate that history is the cause of the characters’ misery, but the film doesn’t help them understand that history any more deeply. Zhang’s sidestepping of sensitive topics seems consistent with the important commissions that he has received from the Chinese government, most notably the huge-scaled opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.By contrast, in the Chinese-language press, critics in Hong Kong and Taiwan have found fault with the near-total displacement by the love story of anything resembling a historically accurate portrayal of the devastation wreaked by the Cultural Revolution. (Indeed, it is unlikely that the wife and daughter of a reactionary Rightist would live in a two-room apartment with its own kitchen and a piano and framed calligraphy.) These critics point out that the novel on which Coming Home is loosely based deals with the entire life span of its protagonist and that its author, Yan Geling, grapples with history much more fully. To this last point, Yan, who lives in the U.S. and did not write the screenplay, has replied to critics who pressed her for her views on the great deviations from her novel: “why don’t you go ask the censors.” On the whole, my sense of the movie is with Zhang’s critics—particularly given his great skill at involving our emotions. At every point on which I had some independent knowledge of historical events, I found myself protesting. At the same time, asking Zhang to make a different movie than the one he did make does not make sense. So instead, taking the lead from Yan Geling, I “asked the censors,” or rather, I searched the film for traces of a more robust reckoning with history that the censors might have passed over. These moments of implicit dissent, I believe, are deliberate. Zhang is too skillful not to have set up the resonances that give these moments meaning, but it is in the nature of hidden dissent that the creator cannot confirm that he has put hints in place. Read more…

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