The tale spans decades and revolutions; the central relationship is a love affair so unending that it can even survive one of the participants no longer recognizing the other; the plinky piano soundtrack runs the gamut from plaintive to plaintive; no, this is not a soupy 1950s melodrama, but the new film from revered Chinese director Zhang Yimou. “Coming Home,” the eighth collaboration between the director and his first and most frequent leading lady Gong Li plays pointedly Out of Competition in Cannes, and while tears will be jerked, heartstrings plucked and throats enlumpened, it has to go down as a disappointment in the director’s catalogue.
It starts promisingly, layering the personal, small, family story against an authentic and fascinating backdrop of Mao-era communism, but in its second half Zhang shows where his heart really lies: not with political commentary or even historical recreation, but with a grand and faintly ludicrous love story. It’s skillfully enough made to be affecting, especially if you let yourself watch it like you would a Douglas Sirk movie, and it’s performed with dedicated depth and typical grace by Gong Li, ably matched by Chen Daoming who plays her devoted, anguished husband. But when the comparisons that force themselves to mind while you’re watching this would-be epic tale of love thwarted are “50 First Dates” and “The Notebook,” it does feel like it’s falling some distance short of Zhang/Gong touchstones like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Ju Dou.”
Initially however, it’s kind of terrific, with Zhang bringing his exquisite visual eye to bear not on the luscious heritage cinema period trappings of some of his more luxuriant films, but on the drabness of Communist China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. There is something about this period of Chinese history, relatively recent and yet somehow more remote in terms of Western familiarity than the time of Emperors, that makes it a thrill to see it so authentically realized (and we could watch a whole film of the ballet that opens the movie, as young girls dressed as communist soldiers pirouette with prop guns in a graceful but chilling simulacrum of war). One of those dancers is Dandan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen) who lives with her mother Feng Wanyu (Gong), while her father, Lu Yanshi (Chen) is absent, having been declared a “rightist” by the Party and sent away to a prison camp. Lu Yanshi escapes briefly and tries to make contact, but in an agonizing and truly effective sequence, he is caught seconds away from reuniting with his wife, by the Communist authorities whom his own daughter had alerted, out of misguided Party loyalty and in return for the promise of advancement within her ballet school.
The action then cuts to three years later when the cultural revolution ends and Lu Wanshi is released. There is a reason it’s Dandan and not Wanyu who comes to meet him off the train: Wanyu has developed selective amnesia, gets very easily confused and, worst of all, doesn’t recognize Yanshi as the beloved husband whom she goes to on the 5th of every month, at the train station. It’s a pretty daft conceit, all told, but initially it does seem that Zhang is making a wider political point about the kind of national amnesia that took hold in the immediate aftermath of the excesses of Maoism. However that parallel reading becomes more and more tenuous the more involved Yanshi’s efforts to reclaim Wanyu become, and pretty soon the film basically becomes a yarn—not lacking in entertainment value or emotiveness, but moored to nothing deeper than the average weepie. Yanshi develops strategy after strategy to win her back, most successfully posing as a letter reader who reads aloud the words he himself wrote to her, while she smiles and nods and continues to wait for her husband’s return.
While it was clearly designed as a showcase for Gong (she plays the one with the awards-worthy illness after all) Chen is particularly strong and souful in his role, managing to ground some of the plot’s more extreme contrivances, but not even they can save the film’s last-act devolution into full-on maudlin melodrama. Each new hope is slowly dashed and each flicker of connection is quickly snuffed out, and the by now truly irritating plinky piano reminds us just how achingly sad we should be about it, far beyond the point we needed reminding. Saddest of all, though, given the film’s promising start and world-class director/actor pairing, is the missed opportunity for something of greater depth. [B-]