The Fragility of Memory: Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home

Chen Daoming as Lu Yanshi and Gong Li as Feng Wanyu. Photo by Bai XiaoYan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Chen Daoming as Lu Yanshi and Gong Li as Feng Wanyu. Photo by Bai XiaoYan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Zhang Yimou’s latest (which showed at both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals in 2014), represents, in the director’s words, “a return to an earlier state of mind and an older approach to creativity.” Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) returns to his family after 20 years in a labor camp, only to find that his beloved wife has a strange form of amnesia and cannot recognize her husband, though she remembers daily how much she loves him. Like in the director’s The Road Home (1999), and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) the tangled web of memory, familial obligation, dignity, and preservation create some good drama. Here, memory is powerful, but like Fate is fickle, especially in the presence of prolonged trauma – the characters sometimes don’t have a choice as to what they want to remember and what they want to forget. The tragic Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), despite her failing memory, makes herself remember the date which her husband Lu will return from labor camp, and remembers a song he would play on the piano; however, by a cruel twist of fate, she cannot remember her beloved husband’s face, partly because of her daughter’s machinations, partly because of the time they have been apart, partly because the local political party forces her to denounce him; and partly because of a trauma inflicted upon her by one of her husband’s tormentors. Memory, the most personal of things, can be imprisoned, tortured, changed, and rendered public property. Such is the cruel gap in her memory (her daughter accuses her of only remembering the bad things) that her husband is unable to get her to recognize him – his piano-playing, his voice, his smell, and even his letters cannot conjure up any sign of recognition – more heartbreaking as she continues to commemorate her love for him daily. She keeps her door open for him, but her memory locks him out in mysterious ways.

While Yimou’s film inches toward melodrama in certain places (the ending is a touch too long), its sense of tragedy and history is well circumscribed. For better or worse, our memories march in any direction they choose, no matter how we try to change it. Coming home, for Lu, is a personal and political act, though there is really no home when his wife cannot remember him. It is only their daughter Dan Dan who really comes home, after earning her parents’ forgiveness and coming to terms with the part she played in altering their history.

Coming Home (Gui lai), dir. Zhang Yimou, 109 min. Le Vision Pictures et al., 2014. In Mandarin. Opens today in San Francisco.

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