Zhang Yimou returns to making a small gritty drama about society in China

The leads of Coming Home, Chen Daoming and Gong Li (both above), put on strong performances as a couple whose lives were affected by the Cultural Revolution.
The leads of Coming Home, Chen Daoming and Gong Li (both above), put on strong performances as a couple whose lives were affected by the Cultural Revolution.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Director Zhang Yimou builds up the emotions gradually in his drama Coming Home

Review Drama

COMING HOME (PG)

111 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: During the Cultural Revolution in China, Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) was sent away to a labour camp as a political prisoner. He finally returns home when it ends in 1976, only to find that things have changed at home. His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) blames their daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), for Lu's recapture after an escape and, more devastatingly, no longer recognises him. He tries ways and means to rekindle her memory of him. Based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling.

It is a homecoming in more ways than one.

Coming Home reunites director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong since they last worked together on the opulent period piece Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006).

In spirit, though, it is closer to the earlier collaborations between the two in gritty dramas such as Red Sorghum (1987), The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992) and To Live (1994) - films which paint compelling pictures of China society with Gong as the charismatic centre in each offering.

And, once again, Zhang draws out a fine performance from his frequent leading lady.

Gong is the most restrained she has ever been, going for quiet naturalism and pulling her punches in a situation ripe for overacting.

Watch how she reacts when they meet again for the first time in years when her husband returns home, her blankly polite behaviour a contrast to his barely constrained joy, which turns to puzzlement and then sorrow.

She is matched by award-winning veteran Chen (Hero, 2002), who is unrecognisable when he first appears as an escaped prisoner buried beneath a layer of grime.

Later, when he realises that Feng no longer recognises him, he sets about trying to jog her memories of him, from posing as a piano-tuner to reading his old letters to her.

It is another tragedy of a family torn apart by the madness of the Cultural Revolution. And while the film does not dwell on it, there are chilling glimpses of its horrors from the poor letter-writing conditions Lu faced to the terrible fate that befalls Feng.

Although a bit slow-moving at times, this tale of love and sacrifice is genuinely moving and its emotive power builds up gradually.

After a string of big-budget martial arts epics such as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers (2004) and Golden Flower, Zhang proves that you can go home again.

bchan@sph.com.sg