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Film Review

Coming Home

The finest Chinese director now working is Zhang Yimou. Few critics would argue otherwise. Since 1987 Zhang has made 19 feature films, many outstanding and some of which are now classics. Eight of his films have been the Chinese nominations for the Academy Awards, in addition to many significant foreign honors. His first film, Red Sorghum (1987), was astonishing and changed Chinese cinema. A torrent of films followed, including: Ju Dou (1980), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), To Live (1994), Not One Less (1999), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and The Flowers of War (2011). Zhang belongs to that immediate post Cultural Revolution generation of film makers. The Cultural Revolution (1966-71), an act of madness directed by Mao Zedong, resulted in the near obliteration of traditional Chinese culture, the persecution of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands. Few non Chinese will ever be able to understand the enormous impact on Chinese culture and its people. Recovery took years and it still profoundly affects many over 50. During the Cultural Revolution Zhang was forced to work on a farm and later a cotton mill for a total of ten years. Like millions of others sent away, the work was severe and unremitting.

Zhang's first three films (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern) were set in historical times, and all feature strong women who challenge society in various ways, often at the cost of their lives. These films are masterpieces and some critics feel that he has never surpassed them. But in my opinion some of his later films have at least equaled his famous first trio. Later films tend to be set in contemporary China and tend to focus on historical events such as the Japanese invasion (Flowers of War) and the Cultural Revolution (To Live), although he has made several fine marital arts films (Hero & House of Flying Daggers). It is hard to overstate Zhang's influence on both Chinese and Western film makers. Predictably, a number of Zhang's films (The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, etc) were banned in China because they were seen as critical of the government. Most of those bans have now been relaxed as Zhang became more famous.

No one can discuss Zhang without reference to Gong Li, the luminescent actress who starred in six of Zhang's early films. She often plays strong women in tragic situations and has contributed enormously to Zhang's films. Like Zhang, she has received many important Western awards. Western film fans probably best remember her in Farewell My Concubine (1993), ironically her first major role with another film maker (Chen Kaige).

Zhang has just completed a powerful new film, his eighth with Gong Li, called Coming Home. It is their first collaboration since 2006 (Curse of the Golden Flower). Lu, a professor who has been sent to a labor camp at the start of the Cultural Revolution, escapes and returns to his family. Yu, his wife, played by Gong Li, and their teenage daughter, DanDan, have not seen Lu for ten years. DanDan is an aspiring ballerina in a dance school and hopes to be picked for one of the leads in a typical Maoist revolutionary ballet where many of the dancers use rifles as part of the production. So when her father turns up she is terrified that this will hurt her chances to be the lead dancer. In Maoist China, ideological purity trumps all, and the fact that DanDan was 3 years old when her father was arrested for "rightist" tendencies does taint her. The story becomes complicated and more tragic yet with a strange twist, but always focused on the effects of an often cruel and arbitrary system designed to crush the slightest dissent. The story continues through the years, the characters age, and the final scene, which will become a classic, is powerful and poignant.

Zhang's cinematography is never less than outstanding. The scenes at the train station, which is almost a character in itself, are unforgettable and exquisitely choreographed. His closeups of his characters emphasize the ability of Gong Li and the others to say so much with slight expressions. Zhang looks closely at Chinese society. As the film opens everyone's clothing is that drab Maoist browns and grays. But as the Cultural Revolution ends and the years past, the clothing becomes much more colorful; a truth and surely a metaphor. The sequence of DanDan's red ballet is beautiful but disturbing because it so effectively transforms force into art. The soundtrack of a single piano is subdued and appropriate for the story.

Coming Home is very accomplished and I expect it to be the Chinese nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. According to news accounts, it has been very popular in China. It is a reminder of a tragic past that crushed so many. Coming Home will certainly join the ranks of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li's best films. I was very moved by this affecting film, and loved what Zhang has done here. This easily makes my list of the best films of 2015, and as usual, ought to be seen on the big screen. Coming Home just opened at the Embarcadero and is not yet playing elsewhere in the Bay Area. Running time: 109 minutes.

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