China, somewhere in the mid-seventies. Political prisoner Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) has escaped, and is desperately trying to get back to his wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and their daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), whom he has not seen for well over a decade. Both women are instructed to stay true to the Revolution, and report their husband and father as soon as he shows his face. Dan Dan, a fiercely ambitious dancer who is in the running for the lead role in a dance production, eventually rats out her father in hopes of securing the part. As Yanshi is snatched at the train station, a desperate Wanyu trying to prevent his capture, the wife knocks her head in the fray.
Three years later, during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, Yanshi is released. He returns home, only to find that the injury sustained by his wife has caused amnesia. Wanyu no longer recognizes Yanshi, mistaking him for a party official. Yanshi, now a stranger in his own home, tries to reawaken Wanyu’s memory, in order to regain the love of his wife and restore the family.
Director Zhang Yimou looked poised to make a bid for the festival trifecta (Cannes, Venice, and Berlin) this year, with the Palme d’Or the only prize that eludes him. Unfortunately (for him, anyway), his latest film Coming Home was relegated to an out-of-competition slot. Viewing the film and his most recent output, one can’t help but feel that Zhang’s heyday is past, and the man that captured the world from the late ’80s to early aughts is in a lull in his career. This latest outing cannot be described as anything other than TV drama, in which Zou Jingzhi’s screenplay based on the novel The Criminal (Yan Geling) tugs at the heartstrings at every opportunity possible with an embarrassing banality. While the initial scenes before Yanshi’s capture are still promising, once the story reaches the point where the released man returns home to find his wife unable to recognize him, the sappy melodrama becomes unbearable. Tears fall on photos, music cues tell you where to feel sad and touched, bile rises. Oh wait, that last thing was personal.
It’s not all bad though. Gong Li, a striking beauty besides her strong acting skills, submerges almost unrecognizably into the role of the mousy housewife Wanyu, delivering a quiet but powerful performance that deserves a much better film. Chen Daoming and Zhang Huiwen as the two other major characters give apt performances, but pale in comparison to their more famous (in the West, anyway) leading lady.
Elsewhere, techs range from the very strong (Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography, the art direction) to the cringeworthy (Qigang Chen’s very on-the-nose musical score). Main culprit in this sap-fest however are the banal, utterly bland screenplay and Zhang’s very pedestrian directing. While the story perhaps is less demanding for it, gone are the visual flourishes that characterized this director so much, mainly opting for a standard point-and-shoot approach. It is a failed attempt that is anchored by a marvellous performance, but even that can’t save this mess.