Taxi Coming Home
COMING HOME, drama, rated PG-13, in Mandarin with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Zhang Yimou and his muse and leading lady, Gong Li, have collaborated on some of the most important films to come out of China over the past three decades. Beginning in 1987 with Red Sorghum, in which Gong made her screen debut, their collaborations have included Ju Dou (1990), Raise
the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), and To Live (1994). For years they were romantically involved as well. Then there was a period of estrangement, which a recent tell-all biography of the director (Fate: Zhang
Yimou the Lonely) by his longtime script consultant Zhou Xiaofeng lays at the conniving feet of Zhang Weiping, Zhang Yimou’s former producer.
Director and star are triumphantly reunited in Coming Home, a heartbreaking story of lost love, despite the fact that the lovers are together and longing for each other through much of it. The culprit? Amnesia. It begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that orgy of Communist political correctness that gripped the country for about a decade starting in the mid-’60s. Feng Wanyu (Gong), a teacher, lives with her teenage daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring dancer. The husband and father Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) has been away for 10 years in prison, presumably for a political offense.
Lu escapes. Party officials warn Feng to report to them if he contacts her. But when he tries to arrange a meeting, she goes, only to be betrayed by her daughter, who barely remembers her father and doesn’t want to jeopardize her dance career. In the melee at their rendezvous, staged by Zhang with chaotic brilliance at the railroad station, Feng suffers a blow to the head. Lu is recaptured.
Years pass. The Cultural Revolution ends, and Lu is released. He returns home. But Feng, who goes faithfully to the station with a sign to meet her husband each time she expects him to arrive, doesn’t recognize the man she loves.
More years pass. Lu tries repeatedly, and with a variety of ploys, to break through Feng’s bizarre amnesia. Even the local party officials try to persuade her that this man is Lu. She won’t believe it. Lu enlists the aid of Dan Dan, whose dance career has foundered anyway, no doubt because of the pall cast over her by her father’s situation.
The target of Coming Home is the personal and cultural devastation wrought on China by the Cultural Revolution. In structure and style, it’s melodrama, reminiscent of emotional Douglas Sirk extravaganzas like
Magnificent Obsession, with Gong in a role you can easily imagine Bette Davis doing in the ’30s. But she plays it with an unselfconscious lack of glamour and a low-key, gentle wistfulness that keep the film grounded and poignant. — Jonathan Richards
Digging through the past: Chen Daoming and Gong Li