In the mid-20th 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 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?
Coming Home, Zhang's first film since the 2011 historical drama The Flowers of War, 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, who played Emperor Qin in Zhang's 2002 Hero) escapes and tries to make his way home to his wife, Feng (the marvelous Gong Li, who has often worked with Zhang), and teenage daughter Dan Dan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen), who was a toddler when he was taken away. The authorities have told both Feng and
Coming Home — which was adapted from a novel by Yan Geling, who also wrote the source material for The Flowers of War — 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
Zhang teases out the best in his actors, or perhaps he knows enough to just sit back and watch and listen. Gong and Chen give performances that feel lived in, like clothes whose very threads have become attuned to the shape and movement of the wearer. In the movie's most stunning section, Lu has a small trunk delivered to Feng. It's too heavy for her to lift — he carries it for her. It's difficult to open — he helps raise the lid. Inside are hundreds of letters written on scraps of paper, letters that Lu had written Feng from prison but was unable to send. She looks at them in awe, wondering why the handwriting is so illegible. "Perhaps," Lu says kindly, "they were written in the dark." He offers to read the letters to her, returning each day to read more. When she greets him cheerfully at the door — "You're the letter-reading comrade!" — Lu's eyes show amusement and joy, but you can't miss the thrumming undercurrent of sadness.
What must it be like to have the person you love best look right past you, unable to see that you're the very person she needs? Coming Home obviously has historical and political significance for Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and for families that were torn apart by it. But Zhang tells this particular story in a deeply personal way — the time and place of its setting have a specific meaning, but its emotional contours spread out into something bigger. When I first saw the film, in Cannes in 2014, I was shaken by its emotional straightforwardness. Later, I was dismayed by the number of critics who sniffed at it. Some called it a film only likely to resonate with Chinese audiences, a roundabout way of suggesting that Americans aren't open to stories that might demand some connection with another culture. Others dismissed it as corny or a tearjerker.
There are some problems with Coming Home — for me, the big one is the score. (It's built on a pale, wan piano motif that too closely resembles "My Heart Will
Starring Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen, Guo Tao, Liu Peiqi, and Zu Feng.Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zou Jingzhi, based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling. Opens Friday, October 2, at Regal Shadowood 16 (9889 W. Glades Road, Boca Raton; 561-482-2340; regmovies.com).