‘Coming Home’: Zhang Yimou, Gong Li thrive in reunion

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By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

The great director Zhang Yimou and his onetime muse, Gong Li, reunite for “Coming Home,” a melodrama infused with politics, betrayal and heartbreak.

Their films together include “Red Sorghum,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and “To Live.” Yet they had worked together only once in the last 20 years (“The Curse of the Golden Flower,” in 2006), so this is a most welcome reunion.

Would we celebrate the film as such a success if anyone else made it? There’s no way to know. Let’s just enjoy what’s in front of us.

The film begins during China’s Cultural Revolution. Feng Wanyu (Gong) is a single mother to her teenage daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen). Feng’s husband Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a professor, has been imprisoned by the state for unspecified crimes (we only hear that he is a “sneaky rightist”). Wanyu and Dan Dan are called to the office of propaganda — yes, that’s its name — and told that Yanshi has escaped. They are warned not to contact him, and to turn him in if they see him.

Wanyu seemingly goes along with this, but begins making loaves of bread, far too many for two people. Dan Dan, meanwhile, is a spoiled teenager who cares only about winning the lead role in the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.” She worries that her father’s reputation could spoil her chances, not without reason. When Yanshi does show up, the results are both infuriating and heartbreaking; without revealing how and why, he winds up back in prison.

That’s really just the setup for the rest of the film. The revolution ends, and Yanshi is released. Again, it would be a mistake to say too much about what happens next. But his return is not the joyous occasion it should have been for anyone involved. Circumstances, never made explicitly clear but hinted at, have changed everything about the lives of Wanyu and Dan Dan, and thus, by extension, Yanshi. For the remainder of the film, Yanshi works quietly and tirelessly to repair the damage that has been done, with the help of a more mature and aware Dan Dan, but it is an uphill battle.

Chen is outstanding as a man tackling a seemingly Sisyphean task. These are the kinds of characters that make movies great — Yanshi is simply doing what he must for his wife, his daughter, himself. No matter how daunting the challenge, he wakes up every day and faces it.

And Gong, of course, revels in the reunion with Zhang. Like the other characters, Wanyu ages during the course of the film. It’s fascinating to see how Gong plays her, retaining dignity in the face of challenges she does not fully understand, only occasionally letting circumstances overwhelm her.This all sounds more secretive than it really is. At heart, “Coming Home” is a love story, and like any good one, it is affected by the events surrounding it. That those events are political in this case does give the story more resonance; with Zhang and Gong together again, it’s that much deeper.

[s3r star=3/4]

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Zhang Yimou and written by Zou Jingzhi, based on the novel by Yan Geling. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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