Coming Home (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

Coming Home 75It’s strange that such an amateurish film comes from a master as seasoned as Yimou.

 

 

 

 

Coming Home 500

Chinese director Zhang Yimou is one of the most accessible, best, and most easily recognizable directors from that country. He’s been cranking out great, aesthetically-beautiful films for nearly 30 years now, and they run the gamut from dramas (Raise the Red Lantern) to romances (Ju Dou) to martial arts pictures (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). Especially in his early career, Yimou tended to cast Chinese superstar Gong Li in the lead role of his usually female-centered pictures. And while Yimou and Li don’t work together quite as reliably as they once did, they’re reteamed in the newest Yimou film, Coming Home, which feels like him trying to recreate the dramatic successes of the earlier part of his career, such as To Live (1994, also starring Li), before he got distracted by a run of martial arts pictures, many of which didn’t feature Li at all.

And at this point, I’m sorry to say that Yimou could stand a hit, at least on American soil, so much as a Chinese drama ever really is a hit among subtitle-fearing Americans. His last few efforts have been the worst of his career—2011’s Christian Bale co-starring The Flowers of War was a dud; 2009’s A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, a remake of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, is awful; and even 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, while pretty good, was the least-interesting martial arts movie he made.

With Coming Home you can feel Yimou really trying, but on the whole it doesn’t work. The premise is similar to something like Still Alice or Away from Her, in that it concerns a wife, Feng Wanyu (Li), who, after a blow to the head and some general wartime trauma, is no longer able to recognize the aged version of her husband Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), who is released back to her in the last days of China’s Cultural Revolution. The trick is that she still remembers Lu, and indeed harbors great affection for a mass of letters he sent and she kept over the years, but she just doesn’t recognize the physical presence of Lu anymore.

This is an interesting scenario and sometimes it pays off, but in reality a lot of the time Coming Home feels like it’s trying to be baldly manipulative, and fails at even that. It’s one of those films where characters like to dramatically cry out each other’s names (as they’re departing: “Lu!” “Yu!” “Lu!” “Yu!” …you get the idea), the camera does these heavy-handed slow zooms to amp up dramatic tension, and generally the weakness of the filmmaking is enough to take you out of the halfway decent story.

As such, it’s strange that such an amateurish film comes from a master as seasoned as Yimou. Also strange is that it isn’t really a very visually interesting film, as nearly all of Yimou’s other films, good and bad, are. Li fares better than Yimou, and I wonder if this isn’t the least-glamorous role she’s ever taken, but even her performance is stepped on by the overall dopeyness of the film’s tone. | Pete Timmermann

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