EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
As accomplished in the world of spectacular visuals as he is intimate character dramas, Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest film, Coming Home, will probably go down as a minor entry in his career. It lacks most of the grandiose color and choreography of works like House of Flying Daggers, and doesn’t develop the kind of complicated, interpersonal ecosystem you’d find in Raise the Red Lantern. But Yimou’s latest is nonetheless an affecting pocket magnum of a melodrama: it looks small and hits big.
Opening during the final years of China’s Cultural Revolution, the film stars Daoming Chen as Lu, a political dissident separated from his wife, Yu (Gong Li), and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), for more than a decade. After a jailbreak and short reconciliation, Lu returns home years later to a family broken by betrayal and mental illness. An accident has caused Yu to suffer from severe memory loss, leaving her struggling to retain new information, such as what her husband would look like after nearly twenty years of separation.
Yimou is comfortable to leave the film mostly in the hands of his actors, and it’s a smart choice. Chen brings sorrowful warmth to Lu that’s magnetic, and Huiwen proves a flexible actress. But it’s Li that’s the real star here, with a performance that asks for much, and delivers every ounce. Like most of Coming Home, Li’s best moments are found between the lines. A trio of reflections by Yu in a pocket mirror provide a more artful narrative spine than Coming Home has to offer on its surface, and its final image is as on-the-nose as they come. Subtle it is not, but even though the circumstances of these people’s lives may be outsized, their longing and loss is rendered with painful clarity and detail.
Coming Home is an affecting pocket magnum of a melodrama: it looks small and hits big.