Mandarin with English Subtitles, currently in theatres in Singapore.
Zhang Yimou is one of the greatest filmmakers of our times and the tallest figure of Chinese cinema.On the surface his latest film Coming Home is a simple and intermittently melodramatic drama about a family during the darkness of the Chairman Mao’s Cultural revolution in China.But the film is all about subtext.It’s a bit pointless watching this film for its story which is poignant enough, or for its pitch perfect performances or for its classical directorial style which is a feast for the senses.
The protagonist Lu (Chen Daomin), is exiled for his rightist leanings but ten years later he escapes in a desperate bid to meet his family.In a brilliant sequence where he is recaptured, the closing shot is of him being dragged away on the railway platform while a train with wagons loaded with coal chugs past.This shot is filmed with a zoom lens, from the point of view of anybody standing on the overhead bridge.The symbolism of the pile of dirty black coal amplifies the subtext at a subliminal level.
The film begins with an exquisitely choreographed ballet rehearsal in which a 13-year-old girl called Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), is rehearsing for a Communist Party propaganda show.She burns with the ambition to dance the lead role.She is pulled out of the rehearsal by a Party official and sat down with her mother, schoolteacher Feng( Gong Li), and told that her father with whom they have had no contact for 10 years, has escaped. Dandan promptly promises to inform the authorities if he turns up but Feng is torn apart.We see Feng’s frustration at this point with a single child, that is also the frustration of millions of mothers in China who sacrificed all for what is considered by many as a largely selfish generation.
Lu does turn up and is betrayed by Dandan at the railway station where he is supposed to meet Feng. Even as a teenager Dandan wants to win favours from the Party.Ten years later the cultural revolution ends and Lu returns home.But all is not well.The revolution and its personal fallout has left Feng with deep psychological trauma.She does not recognise him anymore and keeps mistaking him for a party official who molested her.Yu is denied his identity as husband even after he is no longer a political pariah.
While the amnesia of Feng is obviously symbolic of a similar collective malaise in modern capitalist China about its dark past, I found the subversion of the personal identity of Lu the most intruiguing.While he has been politically rehabilitated he cannot find love as the husband of the woman he values above everything else.He recasts himself in the role of a “letter reading Comrade”, reading her hundreds of un-posted letters he wrote to her in the darkness of his prison cell, a proxy perhaps for the artist denied his identity.This to me is the denial of individuality to people at the level that matters most to them and ironically its an unintended fallout of a pogrom.
Another powerful visual metaphor that touched me deeply was of the railway station gates being shut on Feng as she awaits her husbands arrival.She has been led to believe by Yu himself that he will come on the 5th of the month but has not specified which month.Every month she goes to receive her husband, who is in fact standing by her side.And each time the doors of the station are shut on them after all the passengers have left.There is nothing wrong in itself with the doors being shut, but Mr Zhang’s image is of traumatized people behind iron bars.And on the other side is a state machinery that hardly seems to notice the collateral damage.
Zhang Yimou has an extraordinary command over the cinematic medium across genres.In this film he returns to his quiet roots of telling a conventional story in a conventional but solid way.In the process he tells us about his country in the same way that Ozu did about Japan. Dandan wants to dance the lead but Feng keeps telling her,”The soldier is a good role too”! Are we wise enough to ask our children to restrain their damaging ambitions? All cinema is political, the politics of this film deserves to be decoded and understood.
Categories: World Cinema