Coming Home a stripped-down tale

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      Starring Gong Li. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated G.

      During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao and his aging cronies channelled the rebellious energy of mid-’60s youth into a 10-year orgy of destruction that displaced and killed millions and set back China’s development for a generation.

      Novelist and screenwriter Yan Geling has visited this era before, most notably in Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, Geling’s autobiographical tale of being “reeducated”. Here, directing great Zhang Yimou, who previously adapted The Flowers of War into an expensive period piece, takes on a more stripped-down tale, in which the three principals are stand-ins for the country’s walking wounded.

      This trio consists of Professor Lu (Hero’s excellent Chen Daoming), in prison for unspecified “rightist” activities; his loyal wife, Feng (Zhang’s usual muse, Gong Li); and their daughter, Dandan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen). When Lu escapes, he heads back to Beijing, but the daughter’s promising career in ballet is hampered by Dad’s name. So Dandan flips her noodle and turns him in at the first opportunity.

      The first 20 minutes are gripping, but once we flash forward, a soporific pattern sets in. Mom hasn’t forgiven daughter for the betrayal, and has also developed a form of amnesia that makes it impossible to recognize her husband on his return. Unlike in the American film of the same name, no one walks into the ocean in a fit of self-sacrifice.

      But the broken family members of this Coming Home do spend the remaining 90 minutes trying to out-noble each other. The muted colours, syrupy score, and repetitive scenes drain all life out of these symbolic characters, untroubled by anything so gauche as sexual need or political specificity.

      In Zhang’s view, apparently, the Cultural Revolution was just an unfortunate force of nature, like pestilence and famine. Because no one would ever make those happen, right?