Coming Home: Stranger Danger, by Josh Long
Amnesia. What’s your reaction when you hear that word? Do you roll your eyes as the words “tired cliché” come to mind? Does it conjure up images of Gilligan getting bonked on the head with a coconut so that the Skipper, the Millionaire, his wife, a movie star, and “the rest” have to remind him who he is? It’s one of those medical oddities that we’ve all heard of, though likely we’ve never met anyone who suffers from it. Why is it so widely known? The answer may lie in our fear of the human brain, of its capability to betray us. If we can’t trust even our own minds, what are we left with? In Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home, he ponders loss through the lens of mental trauma – loss of memory, loss of family, and loss of the very concept of home.
Coming Home is based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi, by Yan Geling. In the film, the title character (Chen Daoming) has escaped from prison, where he was sent as an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party. He attempts to reunite with his wife, Yu (Gong Li) but is turned in to the authorities by their daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), a member of a Red Guard group, not unlike the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany. A few years later, with the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, many political prisoners are released, Lu among them. He arrives home to find that his wife does not recognize him. She is suffering from psychogenic amnesia, due to physical and mental trauma. The doctor recommends that Lu can try to help Yu regain her memory by appealing to past memories, but he can make no promise of recovery. Lu must learn what it means to be a father to the daughter who betrayed him, and a husband to the wife who does not know him.
The most tragic aspect of the story is the fact that Yu remembers that she has a husband, even remembers his name. But his voice and face have been wiped from her memory. At one point, Lu has to endure the pain of reading his own letters to her, while she patiently listens to him as if he were a stranger. This allows for several very moving moments, which Zhang is careful not to overuse; he is a master filmmaker, and knows how to create powerful emotional moments without lapsing into melodrama. The beauty in the film comes out of Lu’s commitment to his family, even if things may never go back to normal.
Zhang’s films are often characterized by bright, colorful palettes. This film is a stark exception to that visual approach. Settings are homey, but drab. It’s a muddy color palette, full of brown and gray. The filmmaker has chosen to dispense with heightened visual trappings to focus on the characters. That’s the right decision for a small scale movie like this one. An ample comparison might be 1999’s The Road Home.
With a small scale movie such as this, much of the responsibility for film’s emotional weight lies on the shoulders of the actors. Fortunately, Gong and Chen are two of China’s finest. Gong’s Yu is simple and understated. The few moments of partial remembrance are absolutely heartbreaking. Chen must display wide shifts between hope and despair. Lu is not a character to drop to his knees and cry “woe is me.” His family is of utmost importance to him, and he is determined to learn how to love them now that their world has fallen apart. Buttressing those performances is newcomer Zhang Huiwen, who shines as both a sensitive actor and a fantastic dancer. This is likely the start of a big career for her.
Music also comes to be an important part of the story, and it’s worth noting that the score contains hauntingly beautiful melodies. They set the mood perfectly without calling too much attention to themselves. The film’s score is composed by acclaimed Chinese composer Qigang Chen. Interestingly, the composer’s family was sent to labor camps during the Cultural Revolution, much like Lu.
Coming Home is a film that manages to deal beautifully with a subject matter that has become a campy trope to many. By casting wonderfully talented actors and taking a patient, thoughtful approach to their dilemma, the material is elevated to something wonderful. Yet another example of how Zhang Yimou is one of the best filmmakers working right now.