Before he became known for his action films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou’s filmography was filled with dramas that centered around women. Many of those films featured actress Gong Li, and the end of their prolific work together coincided with Zhang’s shift in genre. Coming Home, then, marks a homecoming of sorts for Zhang and Gong, who have only collaborated one other time in the last two decades. They’re also revisiting the style of film that generated a fruitful collaboration, and while it doesn’t quite stand up to some of their previous works together, it’s still a welcome reunion for the two.
Coming Home does settle into a particularly heavy case of a clichéd movie trope, unfortunately: amnesia. Years earlier, college professor Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is arrested for allegedly being involved in subversive activities and is thrown into a re-education camp. His wife, Wanyu (Gong) is left to raise daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) on her own. Years into his sentence, Yanshi escapes, and his plan to reunite with Wanyu is dashed when Dan Dan, an aspiring ballerina who fully believes state propaganda that paints her father as a traitor, turns him in. One Yanshi is finally released, he returns home to find that Wanyu no longer remembers him. She remembers having a husband in prison, but doesn’t recognize Yanshi as her husband. Instead, she mistakes him at various points as a complete stranger or, worse, an official she slept with once to keep Yanshi from being executed.
As I said, it’s the kind of setup that’s a cinematic cliché. It’s effective, though, and that’s largely due to the performances from Gong and Chen. Zhang, who is normally more experimental in his visual style, even ditches these experiments in order to let the focus remain on his leads. Other parts of the film are less successful. Even excusing Dan Dan’s brainwashing by the government, Zhang Huiwen is more of an annoyance than anything. Still, even if it’s not the strongest work from Zhang or Gong, it’s good to see what these two collaborators are still capable of providing.