Zhang Yimou's full-on approach to classic three-handkerchief-melodrama is entirely appropriate for the family drama at the heart of Coming Home. But if you were expecting the Chinese filmmaker to embrace anew the cooler, more poised approach of his earlier, critically acclaimed films, instead of the glorious bombast of his later, more lavishly appointed big-budget productions, think again. As befits Mr. Zhang's status as the unofficial "official filmmaker" of modern China, creating "tasteful" prestige movies that will resonate both domestically and internationally, Coming Home is an impeccably presented throwback to an earlier era of film - and of Hollywood film to boot.
It's a gloriously old-fashioned weepie in the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk mold, a 1950s woman's picture transplanted to 1970s China, in the dying throbs of the Cultural Revolution, but it's so enamoured of its own tricks and formulas that it loses itself in a gorgeous, soulless formalism. Gong Li, Mr. Zhang's one-time muse, plays Yu, a hard-working schoolteacher that tries as much as she can to keep the household afloat after her teacher husband Lu (Chen Daoming) is sent away for rehabilitation. As the film starts, Lu has escaped and the police are keeping a tight leash on Yu and her teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), a talented ballerina who has little to no memory of her father and falls straight behind the party line.
Lu, obviously, travels home, and Mr. Zhang parlays the father's first attempt to contact the mother into a textbook masterclass of how to say everything you need to say in purely visual terms. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, the director brings the family together in the same building and, delicately, elegantly, with perfect spatial references, without any dialogue whatsoever, he cuts between each in such a fluid way that everything the viewer needs to know about the relationship between father, wife and daughter is made clear. It's a remarkable, picture-perfect sequence that explains why Mr. Zhang was one of the most exquisite, extraordinary filmmakers revealed in the 1980s.
Alas, from this post-credits sequence onwards, it's downhill all the way as the film jumps five years forward and deals with the now rehabilitated Lu's return home, only to find Yu no longer recognises him, her memory clouded under some sort of unspecified ailment. With the complicity of Qigang Chen's overwrought, Morriconian score and Zhao Xiaoding's moody, golden photography, Mr. Zhang lets both his melodramatic tale and his virtuoso handling take over and run away with the picture, all those sweeping pans and pullback set-ups showing off the scope of the sets and straining against the film's necessarily small-scale story.
Overripe and overloaded, Coming Home wants to believe the simple, grandiose feelings underlying its slender, romantic tale of love surviving against all odds, but Mr. Zhang gets so swept away by his passionately elaborate handling that the film all but creaks and gives way under their weight. It ends up as a Sirkian melodrama that takes itself far too seriously and loses track that the key thing is for the handling to serve the story, not the other way around.
Cast Chen Daoming, Gong Li, Zhang Huiwen
Director Zhang Yimou; screenwriters Zou Jingzhi with Zhou Xiaofeng, based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling; cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (colour), composer Qigang Chen; designers Lin Chaoxiang and Liu Qiang; costumes Wang Qiuping; editors Meng Peicong and Mo Zhang; producers Jia Yueting, Jerry Ye, Bill Kong, Li Li, Yifang Zhao and Zhang Zhao; production companies Le Vision Pictures in association with Wanda Media, Edko Beijing Films, Helichenguang International Culture Media (Beijing) and Zhejiang Huace Films/TV
screened July 21, 2015, Lisbon