Review of Coming Home (2014)
Seen in 2020.
A political prisoner, returning home illegally during the Cultural Revolution, is betrayed by his daughter—a stranger—and reimprisoned. When he is released, his wife variously fails to recognize him at all and mistakenly believes he is the Communist Party official she slept with to spare his life.
Zhang’s craft is good, as usual, but the realism and human sentiment of Red Sorghum (1988) are missing here. The selective amnesia is not believeable at any point, neither in writing nor acting. It’s a melodramatic conceit standing in for the unmentioned horrors of Mao’s regime.
As in a classic Greek tragedy, the central characters are better people than average, yet flawed: As he sees it, Yanshi’s hamartia was the unnamed political crime that got him arrested, and his brilliant daughter’s hamartia is her betrayal. These supposedly personal flaws excuse the regime. When Yanshi reads a crate full of letters about his 20 years of imprisonment, it is evident that these years were hard, but there is no humiliation, starvation or torture.
The mysterious Fang, who extorted Wanyu for sex, has himself been disappeared, but we don’t know whether that’s because he was evidently corrupt—which would be the police doing its nominal job—or for some other reason. Zhang skirts his true subject: The society-wide, impersonal tragedy of Mao’s China, the extension of which into 2014 would have punished Zhang if he had made an honest film. The best thing about the film he did make is that the problem is never solved, which I read charitably as condemnation.