During the promotion of his new movie Coming Home director Zhang Yimou stressed that he wasn’t just rehashing the arthouse panache of his early films. “I do want to return to political filmmaking,” he said. “I will go back to my roots. But like the characters in this film, I am not the same as I once was, and I won’t go back to [political films] in the same way.”
What is not in doubt is that Coming Home deals with a highly ‘political’ period. It is set during the Cultural Revolution – an era normally viewed as taboo in Chinese cinema – and follows the traumatic story of an intellectual banished to the countryside.
Zhang’s first films came out in the 1980s and were unsparing, gritty tales that won him international fame. But his latest offering, which is based on the final 30 pages of the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Yan Geling, is not quite as edgy. It sidesteps most of the hardship of the Cultural Revolution and focuses more on the enduring love story of a couple who survived it.
The film tells the story of Lu Yanshi, who, upon returning home at the end of the Cultural Revolution, discovers that his wife (played by Gong Li) fails to recognise him because of “psychogenic amnesia”. Lu has to try all manner of trickery – like pretending to be a neighbour who comes to read her husband’s letters – to help jolt her memory.
As Zhang himself puts it: “[The film] is not so much about the Cultural Revolution but its aftermath: how do you repair your life and still pay the debt of the Cultural Revolution?”
Some critics say they feel a tad underwhelmed: “Perhaps his vision, ideas and creativity have been blunted over the years. A decade of political mass destruction now turns into a 110-minute love story under Zhang’s helm,” opined Yangcheng Evening News.
Others argue that Coming Home shouldn’t be considered as an art-house movie. “The film clearly has a commercial angle in mind. All the marketing skips the politics and centres on everlasting love. And the producers are also spending up to Rmb40 million ($6.4 million) to promote the film, far exceeding the total production cost,” snipes Gao Jun, a critic.
But moviegoers don’t seem to mind: “My conclusion is that it is the best film Zhang Yimou has made and will make in this century… He is still exploring ways of using a film to review, examine and even criticise the shortcomings of a unique era. A lot of these things still have strong practical significance today,” says Suo Yabin, an associate professor at Communication University.
“I watched Coming Home with my in-laws and my wife. My tears couldn’t stop flowing… But my mother-in-law says the film shows very little history, the actual brutality was much greater,” Dan Bin, a popular microblogger with over 7 million followers, wrote on weibo.
At an advance screening, Hollywood Reporter also noticed that several older viewers sat tearfully in the cinema long after the credits had rolled. “I watched the entire film in tears,” Yuan Li, editor of the Chinese Wall Street Journal, also admitted.
While the film seems to have struck a chord with the older generation, younger netizens grumbled that it was “too slow”. Some even said they were “bored to tears”. As one mused online: “Older people quietly weep in the cinema while those born in the post-90s generation fall asleep.”
Snooze or snuffle, Coming Home has been a financial success, making over Rmb200 million at the box office since it opened on May 16. Revenues of more than Rmb300 million would be a record for an art-house film in China.
Industry insiders have also suggested that the success of Coming Home proves the commercial value of films that target an older audience. “Through strong word of mouth, more and more middle-aged audiences are lured back to the theatre again,” says Bai Hui, a cinema operator.
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