Starring: Daoming Chen, Gong Li, Huiwen Zhang
Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Material
Gong Li is one of the most beguiling actresses working today. Even when she's in something awful like "2046," her presence and appeal (not to mention her talent) cannot be denied. What's remarkable about her is that she's an incredibly physical actress. Not in the sense of Bruce Willis or any other action star, but Li has the uncanny ability to use her body to get the perfect effect. With a simple movement, she can turn something as mundane as walking into something truly expressive.
Li plays Yu, a woman living in China at the time of the Great Leap Forward. She has a daughter named Dandan (Zhang), who is training to be a dancer. Her husband Lu (Chen) is a political prisoner and away to become a "comrade." However, he escapes, but Dandan, fearing the loss of a key role, turns him in. Three years later, he is released, but Yu has developed amnesia and no longer recognizes him.
This is standard order tearjerker material, and that's okay. Done well, it could have been tremendously affecting. Unfortunately director Zhang Yimou's approach is too gritty, too serious. He desaturates the color from the screen and eschews most signs of melodrama. What he misses is that that stuff is what makes a movie like this work. It needs the manipulation, the warmth, the grand gestures.
His two stars, Gong Li and Daoming Chen, understand this perfectly. They are in perfect sync with the material, and as such, save it from becoming a misfire. Both give strong performances; in a perfect world, they would have been afforded Oscar nominations, but the film received little attention on this side of the Pacific (it was at my local arthouse theater for only a week, which is why I missed it). As the devoted Lu, Daoming Chen is wonderful. He wants his family back, but he knows its broken and feels responsible for it. However, he does what he can for his wife in the hopes that her condition will improve. His co-star Gong Li is exceptional, doing her best work in a decade, perhaps longer. Although weathered by time (credit goes to the make-up department for convincingly aging the eternally beautiful actress by a few decades), she retains her warmth and spirit. It's as if Yimou had gone forward in time and given his lead actress arthritis and dementia. The third member of the cast, Huiwen Zhang, holds her own, but there's not mistaking the stars ofthis movie.
At a little over 100 minutes, "Coming Home" is too short. Perhaps because the gap between the last two scenes is so abrupt, but the film ends just when things are starting to get interesting. The film also starts off on unsure footing. A movie like this demands a director who has absolute control of the story and Yimou isn't quite there.
Still, if you're looking for an introduction to the talents of Gong Li, there are few better options.