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film review

In Coming Home, Chen Daoming plays Lu, a man recently released from a labour camp, and Gong Li plays Yu, his amnesia-afflicted wife.

At the core of Coming Home, the latest film from the popular and prolific Zhang Yimou, there lies a powerful allegory.

During China's Cultural Revolution, a political prisoner escapes and makes his way home to the wife and daughter he has not seen in years. Terrified by the warnings she has received from local authorities about her duty to the Communist Party, the wife does not answer the door to her disgraced husband while the daughter betrays him, sending him back to the labour camp.

Years pass, the Cultural Revolution wanes, Lu (Chen Daoming) is "rehabilitated" and goes home again. This time he finds his wife Yu (Gong Li) waiting patiently for his promised return but incapable of recognizing him when he arrives. He is reunited with his daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who explains that since his recapture, her mother has suffered mental lapses.

Lu moves into an empty storefront next to his old apartment and works hard to jog Yu's memory, but she just keeps going to the station to meet the train that might bring him home. Such is the amnesia that totalitarianism requires.

The story, drawn from a popular novel by Geling Yan, is like some mirror image of The Return of Martin Guerre – this time the wife refuses to acknowledge a true husband instead of embracing an impostor – and like that enduring tale, subtly implicates society in the mistaken identity. In Zhang's clever hands, which have directed everything from Raise the Red Lantern to the martial-arts epic Hero as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, there is something remarkable yet not quite fantastical about the workings of this amnesia: In one scene, Lu discusses his wife's case with a doctor who simply diagnoses a psychosomatic disorder.

Zhang has been criticized for cutting the first sections of the novel dealing with the reality of the labour camp, and certainly he has softened the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, but small hints – Lu is described as a professor; he speaks a bit of French and plays the piano – will remind anyone who knows their history why people like him were imprisoned in the first place. Intriguingly, the director has successfully woven a Kafkaesque metaphor into a classically Chinese melodrama.

The ever-luminescent Gong touchingly creates Yu's gentle but persistent confusion, effectively delineating the workings of her amnesia and her continuing decline, while Chen makes the calm and forgiving Lu highly sympathetic. In the end, the family drama rolls on as the political metaphor wears thin so that the second half of the film is less striking and less interesting than the first. You might wish for a more pointed conclusion than the sad yet rather sentimental ending provided, but the film certainly represents Zhang's successful return to the art house.

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