Film and TV

Zhang Yimou's Coming Home Is What the Movies Are Made For

In the mid-twentieth century, movie audiences understood the value of a good melodrama: A picture like Now, Voyager or Black Narcissus or almost anything by Douglas Sirk could be an urn into which you could pour your own unarticulated feelings of loss and loneliness. The heightened, unrealistic intensity of those movies wasn’t a mistake that the filmmakers somehow failed to correct, but a way of drilling past everyday surface anxieties — the random little worries that plague us — to get to a deeper stratum of emotional intensity, the feelings we so often push down in the mere act of living. Melodrama hasn’t died — it survived through the ’80s and ’90s with effective, if not necessarily good, pictures like Ghost and The Bridges of Madison County — but it seems that today’s audiences are wary of it, preferring to get it filtered through the spectacle of superheroes. For now, the old-fashioned, mainstream Hollywood melodrama is a fairly dormant art form. What will the Americans who get to see Zhang Yimou’s tender and unapologetically fervent Coming Home make of it?

Zhang’s first film since the 2011 historical drama The Flowers of War, Coming Home is pure melodrama, with all the unfiltered feeling that promises. The story opens in the early to mid-1970s, near the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. Political prisoner Lu (Chen Daoming) escapes and tries to make his way home to his wife, Feng (the marvelous Gong Li), and teenage daughter Dan Dan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen), who was a toddler when he was taken away. The authorities have told both Feng and Dan Dan about the escape, urging them to report back if Lu tries to contact them. Feng is loyal; Dan Dan, an aspiring ballerina hoping to curry favor with state officials, sees her father on the landing of the family’s flat and betrays him to the authorities, unbeknownst to Feng; he’s captured the next day, just as Feng has gone to the train station to meet him, secretly, with provisions. As he’s being taken away, Feng falls and suffers a head injury. Three years later, at the end of Mao’s decade-long purge, Lu is released — only to discover that Feng no longer recognizes him. She’s certain her husband will appear soon — she clings to the date she’s been told he’ll return, “the fifth of the month” — but she considers the man before her a stranger.

Coming Home comes together with soft, stippled brushstrokes rather than broad plot turns. The movie’s delicate surprises take shape in the ways Lu reconnects with his wife, and in how he makes peace with Dan Dan. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding extends that gossamer touch to the look of the film. The family’s modest apartment is shot in muted, cozy gray tones; Dan Dan’s ballet rehearsal is more vibrantly colorful, though it suggests a false promise, the allure of following the rules as opposed to the clean, frightening thrill of breaking them.

I cringe at the word “tearjerker,” perhaps because I’m never fully sure what it indicates: that it’s bad or stupid to cry at movies? That movies that make us cry are cheaply manipulative and thus automatically suspect? It’s true that terrible movies are often capable of getting the waterworks going. But “tearjerker” is too often used as a viewer’s — or a critic’s — way of asserting superiority over the material. And the whole point of melodrama — its allure and its danger, especially for those whose job is not just to watch movies, but to scrutinize them — is to make us surrender. When I think of Chen’s Lu reading his own letters to his wife, I’m unembarrassed about giving in to Coming Home.
Sometimes you just have to ask yourself one question: Why else go to the movies? 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.