COMING HOME (Gui Lai) B
China (109 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Zhang Yimou Official site [Japan]
An old-fashioned, Hollywood melodrama in the traditional sense, where the strength of the film comes from the powerful performances, reuniting Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou with celebrated actress Gong Li for the 8th time where together they produced a series of lavish, highly colorful period melodramas in the 90’s starring his then partner Gong Li in RED SORGHUM (1987), JU DOU (1990), RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), TO LIVE (1994), and SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995). It’s been nearly 40-years since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and 20-years since the director’s film TO LIVE was banned at home in China after winning the Jury Prize at Cannes and Best Actor for Ge You. Since that time, Zhang Yimou has gone from being a political outcast, straddling the line with authorities, where he was recently forced to pay over a million dollar fine for violating the country’s one-child policy (where he allegedly fathered 7 children with 4 women), to the heralded genius behind the dazzling opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where his choreography of a cast of thousands was nothing less than spectacular. No longer the innovative visual stylist of his youth when his early films were banned in China until he made a Party-approved film on a contemporary theme, THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992), Zhang Yimou, in the eyes of some, capitulated to Party authorities and has become more of a master craftsman, defined by his ability to bring organization to the chaos of the collective, directing his re-imagined production of Turandot, Puccini’s most exotic opera set in ancient China, staged at the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1998, which becomes even more daring and visually explosive under his direction, before touring the world after the Olympics in 2009-10 with his reprised version, staging a ballet version of RAISE THE RED LANTERN in 2001, while also leading the production of contemporary Chinese composer Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor that had its premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2006. Adapting Yan Geling’s novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi, herself a dancer at age 12 in the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, an author who received her master’s in Fine Arts Fiction Writing at Columbia College in Chicago, it’s a film that looks back at the crimes of the Cultural Revolution with a spirit of haunting resignation, where one character can be heard saying, “It’s all right, it’s in the past now,” reminiscent of the memorable final line from Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Few Chinese films have addressed what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution, which remains a sticky subject with government censors, and those directors that did, such as Sixth Generation filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai’s Cultural Revolution Trilogy of SHANGHAI DREAMS (2005), 11 FLOWERS (2011), and RED AMNESIA (2015), did so with official permission, as lacking that authority led him to be officially blacklisted early in his career, while director Tian Zhuangzhuang received a 10-year ban from making films for his blistering critique of the government’s practices during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, leading up to the Cultural Revolution in THE BLUE KITE (1993), an extraordinary film that remains banned to this day. Like Tian’s family, whose father was head of the Beijing Film Studio while his mother ran the Beijing Children’s Film Studio, Zhang Yimou’s parents were similarly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, with both children being sent to countryside re-education farm labor camps. Tian Zhuangzhuang comments on the situation in James Berardinelli’s review, Blue Kite, The | Reelviews Movie Reviews:
I finished shooting The Blue Kite in 1992. But while I was involved in post-production, several official organizations involved with China’s film industry screened the film. They decided that it had a problem concerning its political ‘leanings,’ and prevented its completion. The fact that it can appear today seems like a miracle... The stories in the film are real, and they are related with total sincerity. What worries me is that it is precisely a fear of reality and sincerity that has led to the ban on such stories being told.
Without providing any backstory, the film opens in the early 70’s with the country still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, centering on the budding career of Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), a promising dancer in the ballet troupe’s rehearsals for the upcoming revolutionary dance performance of The Red Detachment of Women. While she is the strongest dancer, she is not chosen for the lead, as her father, intellectual college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), was convicted more than a decade ago for being a Rightist (his crime was that he could speak French!) and sent to a labor re-education camp. Due to that political disgrace, the punishment continues to be passed onto the family. Fuming at the outcome, Dandan finds little sympathy at home from her school teacher mother Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), who thinks she should be more humble in her ambitions. Almost immediately, they learn of Lu’s prison escape, where authorities expect him to try to make it home, warning the family of harsh repercussions should they try to shelter him from the police. Since Dandan barely remembers her father, she’s automatically willing to cooperate, indoctrinated to put party above family, though her mother hesitates at the thought. It comes as little surprise when he appears like a ghost in the night, eluding the authorities who are hovering nearby, but he’s stymied by a locked door, leaving a note to meet him at the train station. What follows is a highly choreographed chase sequence on the crowded platforms of the train station where in dizzying fashion that actually grows comical in its stylized, almost slow-motion repetition, Lu attempts to elude the police who have been tipped that he will be waiting there, while Feng frantically tries to warn him of their omnipresence. All interested parties converge at the same point on a collision course with destiny, as the police push Feng out of the way, bloodying her forehead as they knock her down to grab Lu, overpowering him on the spot as they haul him back to prison. The film jumps ahead several years, as after Mao’s death, many of the previous convictions were revoked in 1979, as Lu is officially pardoned and released from prison, arriving at the train station where he is met by Dandan, who now lives and works at a textile factory. No longer welcome in her mother’s home once she learned it was Dandan who betrayed her father by turning him in to the police, selfishly hoping she might regain the lead in the dance company, but that never happened. When Dandan finally summoned the courage to tell her mother, she’s blindsided by her response, “I’ve cared about no one but you all your life. It’s time I think about your father.” While most of this film takes place inside the seemingly cramped apartment of Feng, who lives a claustrophobic, cocoon-like life, the sequences that come alive the most are the impressive dance scenes with Dandan, where Zhang has a unique ability to brilliantly stage artistic performance, expressed with a stunning beauty. This joyous sense of youthful exhilaration is contrasted by the slow and gentle pace of life from the aging Feng, where Gong Li’s best moments are spent in quiet solitude, exhibiting her own unique sense of rhythm and quiet desperation.
Much to Lu’s surprise, Feng doesn’t recognize him when he arrives back home, immediately throwing him out, confusing him with someone else who once caused her great harm. Even the authorities are confused, as they quickly have to find him alternate housing nearby, fixing up an abandoned storage facility. Watch movies long enough and you’ll become a medical expert on conditions you never knew even existed, as Feng’s condition is described as psychogenic amnesia (Dissociative amnesia), where there is a temporary loss of recall memory anywhere from minutes to years, typically associated with stressful circumstances, usually due to a traumatic event, joining a host of other films that deal with memory loss, from Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO (2000), displaying a short term memory condition where new memories are never developed, FINDING NEMO (2003), where Dory suffers from short term memory loss, while IRIS (2001), THE NOTEBOOK (2004), Away from Her (2006) and Still Alice (2014) show the devastating progression of memory loss from Alzheimer’s Disease. While Feng remembers she had a husband, she is unable to recognize Lu, who tries a variety of creative techniques to try to jostle her memory. With the aid of Dandan, who is herself wracked with guilt from her own involvement, Lu is able to enter her life as a kind and benevolent stranger, arriving at her door as a piano tuner, playing a song that he hoped she would remember, and later becoming the letter reader, as he’s able to read a stack of letters written by her husband but never sent. While there are moments where it appears they regain the semblance of closeness, it quickly falls apart, leaving nothing short of utter exasperation. Chen Daoming’s dignity and patience throughout is particularly noteworthy, as he’s stripped of his identity, yet continually reaches out for the woman he tragically spent twenty years separated from while in prison, and is thwarted at every step. The overwhelming disproportion of his punishment seems absurd, yet that is the film’s only reference to Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 50’s purging the intellectual class, remnants of a former society that had to be re-educated to become a useful part of the new collective. The film completely sidesteps Lu’s alleged crimes and how twenty years of his life were lost for political experimentation, but does show how his family was destroyed in the process, the lingering effects of his punishment passed on to future generations, shifting the focus instead to how he is cleverly able to reunite Feng and Dandan under one roof, but fails in his attempts to be recognized for who he is, as if he remains purged from the past, a ghost that now exists in the collective amnesia of the nation where life goes on.
The film bears a resemblance to Fassbinder’s THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979), especially Feng’s insistence on continually going to the train station to meet her husband, carrying a hand-drawn placard sign so he would recognize her, petrified at the thought of living a life without him, constructing a postwar/post-revolutionary existence that is literally devoid of his spirit, where the heart and soul of her life exists only in memory, which the newly constructed society has little use for once he reappears like a vanished ghost. Fassbinder, however, dealt with his country’s collective guilt in a much bolder fashion, but the Nazi’s lost the war and their hold on power, requiring the construction of a new German identity. It’s hard to believe the same film could have been made had the Nazi’s remained in power, a thought that permeates throughout Joshua Oppenheimer’s two bookend films on Indonesian genocide in 1965, The Act of Killing (2012) and THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014), where the perpetrators of the crime remain in power today by creating a history of lies and distortions about their own culpability, where the past remains in the past, where questions about their role are met with a similar inability to remember, while in China the same monolithic Communist Party of the 1940’s continues to rule in the modern era as well. The idea of a nation having to learn to live with the horrors and tragedies of the past through a collective amnesia is a bitter pill to swallow and probably makes little sense outside the borders of China. Within China, however, the film may act as a kind of truth and reconciliation committee, where even if history is forgotten, or the tragic consequences minimized, the associating trauma lingers and is never actually reconciled, where Dandan’s eventual maturity does redeem her actions, becoming a helpful participant in building a newly constructed society, while living in the present requires some kind of benign acceptance with everything that came before, murders, mistakes and all, as China is viewed as one large collective family, where they need to reunite around common goals. In the West, however, it’s hard to see this, as evidenced by an excerpt from Shelly Kraicer, long-time Beijing resident from Cinema Scope, TIFF 2014 | Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, China) — Special ...
A series of melodramatically heightened scenes, each directed and shot as if it were for a highlight reel, ensue, as does much audience weeping, if the film attains its objective. Its ideological objective, in this case, is particularly noxious, though not so surprising from an artist who’s given himself so totally over to the Party’s ideological line of the moment. Here, we are to learn that the true accounting of the crimes buried in our (families’ or nation’s) past(s) is impossible; nevertheless, one must live on, happily, domestically, harmoniously. How that lesson can be generalized to apply to the Chinese Communist Party and its current subjects is not so much left to as imposed on the viewers. For an antidote to this depressing line, see Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia, also at TIFF, which seems (coincidentally, to be sure) to be conceived as a precise and devastating riposte to Zhang. In Wang’s vision, the past continues to define the present: a life worth living, for Wang, is predicated exactly on the necessity of acknowledging and accounting for past crimes; past traumas, un-repented, can only haunt and pollute the present.