Coming Home, the latest film by Zhang Yimou, is designed in a similar vein to the Hollywood production, Still Alice (2015), which starred Julianne Moore as a middle-aged career woman who was struck down in her prime by Alzheimer’s. Both films are melancholy, heartbreaking tragedies, with standout lead performances, but the one by Yimou tells a much more human story. We are not solely invested in the Alzheimer’s victim; we care deeply about her daughter, the dispirited ballerina; and her husband, the political prisoner who comes home after the Cultural Revolution to a wife who doesn’t remember him.
To be sure, Gong Li, the effortless matriarch of Chinese cinema, delivers a performance that is altogether painful and easy. We sink so quickly into her life and travails that, like Moore, we forget acting is taking place.
The first act of the movie is of course the setup, where we learn that Wanyu (Li) is a woman divided during Mao’s rise to power. Her husband, Lu (Chen Daoming), is a professor whose ideologies clash with the status quo, while her daughter (Zhang Huiwen) is set to star as prima ballerina for the Party’s latest propaganda production. Wanyu is loyal to neither side, only to Lu. After Lu is captured by Party officials, time passes, the Revolution ends, and Lu comes home — only things are not quite as he remembers.
Their daughter, Dandan, is no longer dancing; she works at a textile plant, bitter, forgotten. Wanyu no longer teaches; she stays at home, is visited regularly be the local deputy, and is plagued by haunting memories of a terrible incident that occurred while her husband was locked in a cell. But the biggest change of all has happened in her mind — whether through psychological trauma, physical abuse, the slow decay of time, or sheer misfortune, she has succumbed to dementia. She has discarded Dandan, rejects the real Lu, and pines miserably for a phantom husband who is set to arrive on the fifth (of which month?) but never does.
Lu is at first bewildered by his wife’s actions, then he’s deeply saddened, then sympathetic. “Your mother is not well”, he intones. “You must be more understanding”. Having had a grandmother handicapped by Alzheimer’s for over ten years I can assure Lu that being understanding is a move not easily executed.
Yimou films his characters and their story with an earnest affection, opting for still shots and unobtrusive camera angles. There are long stretches of quiet as Lu tries time and time again to reach out to the shadow of the woman he loves. First he poses as himself. She accuses him of being Mr. Fang and chases him out of the apartment. He plays her game and alights the train that’s meant to carry him; as he walks up to her at the gate, she smiles and stares past him, beyond into nothingness. Then he pretends to be a piano tuner. Lastly, he offers to read a whole bunch of his letters that he sent from prison. This works surprisingly well. But what if she now only sees him as the man who reads to her?
The trouble with Alzheimer’s is that it’s more damaging to the people who are healthy. Usually the sufferer is none the wiser (unless it’s during the early stages where forgetfulness can swiftly lead to frustration). Observe Lu and Dandan in Coming Home. They skirt around the barrier of Wanyu as if treading over a minefield, while she sips her tea and smiles blissfully at the thought of her husband. Any wrong word or startling action could reset her mind, erasing all progress.
So you see, the story is not so much about Wanyu as it is about the people she needs to survive. If you study the way the plot unfolds, and the confessions Lu makes towards the end, you might even see her as a catalyst. Her illness provides an ironic opportunity for Lu to face the demons of his past. Even Dandan has a lot to learn from her mother’s adversity. She begins the movie as a whiny crybaby, but she has her reasons, and by the end blossoms into a reliable pillar of strength. Ultimately, Lu and Dandan realise that this woman, who can barely remember how to close a tin can, is still their most treasured of relations. And that’s the hardest part.
Best Moment | Witnessing how Wanyu reunites Lu and Dandan, a father and daughter who perhaps spent just a couple of years together before Mao’s regime tore them apart.
Worst Moment | Nope.