Besides being one of the leading lights in China’s so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is also, for moviegoers of a certain vintage, one of his country’s best-loved historical storytellers. His period films often contemplate pivotal moments in China’s past, told from conflicting points of view, offering ways of remembering a past clouded with painful memories. As he’s a professional rememberer, then, it’s interesting that Zhang’s latest, Coming Home, opening Friday (October 2), is about a crisis of memory, in both the actual and metaphorical sense.
The film tells the story of a woman (Gong Li, star of many of Zhang’s most famous films, including Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern) who doesn’t recognize her husband when he returns from many years in a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution.
“Right now, Chinese culture is in a process of forgetting,” Zhang told the Georgia Straight through an interpreter during an interview at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “The culture is more interested in more superficial things. Movies are like fast food.”
The question is: who will watch a film like Coming Home? Most members of the contemporary moviegoing audience in China were born in the 1990s, so they have little memory or understanding of the Cultural Revolution. Still, something interesting happened after the movie opened domestically in May 2014. As Zhang followed discussions prompted by the film online, he noticed that a lot of young people were saying that they brought their parents with them to see the movie in the theatre, to get their parents to tell them more stories about their history.
“There is certainly a feeling that we are struggling to remember our past,” he said. “I believe that movies are the most potent, powerful form of art; I have this sense of responsibility to use my movies to influence other people’s lives, especially young people in today’s China, to let them know more about history.”
The kind of movies Zhang makes are rare in the Chinese market right now, but there’s a double meaning behind that title. It refers to the character’s homecoming but also speaks to the fact that Zhang considers Coming Home to be a return to his early days of moviemaking. “Of course, one single film cannot change the status quo,” he quickly added. “But I will do what I can. This has always been my dream and desire. I’m using this film to express my feelings, and there’s nothing metaphorical about that.”