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Review: Zhang Yimou’s latest drama, Coming Home

CELEBRATED Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou returns to cinemas with his latest offering, Coming Home. Hieu Chau takes a look at the Cultural Revolution-set drama.

After flirting with wuxia epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, working on giant commercial fare like The Flowers of War (which starred Christian Bale, no less) and directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, director Zhang Yimou scales everything back and returns to familiar territory with his latest, Coming Home, a small period drama set during the Cultural Revolution.

The title is certainly appropriate as Zhang returns to helm a project that’s much smaller in scale, much like the ones that originally helped him become one of China’s leading filmmakers. It also sees his muse, actress Gong Li, return to work with the celebrated director (she last worked with the filmmaker on Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006 – it is their tenth collaboration together).

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Just don’t expect Coming Home to be as politically charged as some of his earlier works, however. While it certainly is a return to familiar territory for the filmmaker, Zhang pulls back some of his punches and lightly jabs away at the Cultural Revolution.

It may also come as a surprise to long-time admirers of Zhang’s work that Coming Home, while characteristically restrained, is also not the usual lavish production that Zhang is commonly known for. It’s not as splendorous as his wuxia epics nor is it as visually haunting as Raise the Red Lantern. In fact, you could even say the look of this film is uncharacteristically plain of Zhang.

That said, the film doesn’t necessarily require a lavish production given its confines as a bleak melodrama about a man who returns home, after spending years in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, only to find a broken family waiting for him.

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As a melodramatic feature, Coming Home is modestly directed, well-acted and quite heartbreaking. The acting duo of Chen Daoming and Gong Li are a huge part of what makes Coming Home an affecting film and they turn in good performances. Concerning Gong’s role in the film, Zhang does a great job of masking her movie star appeal which only strengthens the film’s light touch and modest approach.

While there may be one too many dramatic zooms in the film – another uncharacteristic move of Zhang that I feel might just be his way of pandering to the kind of audience that would enjoy films like this – Coming Home is an enjoyable albeit sad drama from the prolific Chinese filmmaker. It might not have the potency of some of his earlier works but it’s still quite memorable in its own right and an appropriate addition to ACMI’s upcoming film season dedicated to the on-screen collaboration of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.

Coming Home will screen at ACMI as part of their upcoming film season, Epic Intimacy: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li (March 6 – 15). It is also being planned for a wider theatrical release later this year.

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