The 2014 Chinese drama “Coming Home” proves love, family and loss transcend cultural differences. Screened Feb. 14 at the Movies at Meadville as the third installment in the annual International Film Festival, “Coming Home” presents the story of one family’s trials during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The film opens with a striking shot of a filthy, well-bundled man asleep beside train tracks. Though he is too coated with grime for viewers to make out his features, viewers soon learn that the seemingly homeless man is Lu Yanshi, an escaped political prisoner.
In the following scene, Lu’s young teen daughter, Dandan, is summoned along with her mother, Feng Wanyu, to the office of a government official who tells them in no uncertain terms they are to have no contact with Lu.
Dandan, who has grown up largely without a father at the height of the Cultural Revolution, is more than willing to accept these terms. Wanyu, however, is pressured into accepting them.
The scene deftly sets the tone for the story presented by “Coming Home” as oppressively gray imagery dominates the screen for the rest of the film and mirrors the ongoing suffering of Dandan and Lu.
This is not to say the film lacks excitement or heart, however. The action gets a jarring start when Wanyu attempts to meet her husband at the nearby train station.
Director Zhang Yimou tugs at viewers’ heartstrings as the couple, who have been separated for 10 years, sprint toward each other only to be apprehended moments before embracing.
Dandan, who traded information about her father for a chance to play the lead in an upcoming ballet performance, looks on as her mother is violently thrown to the ground and sustains a bloody head wound.
The movie jumps shortly thereafter to the end of the Cultural Revolution three years later. Dandan is alone as she picks up a now cleanly dressed Lu from the train station. Lu, freshly released from prison, is eager to reunite with his wife, but Dandan says little and sends him on alone from her dormitory at the textile factory where she now works.
Lu’s homecoming is immediately peculiar as Wanyu greets him not with crazed emotion but with a pleasant politeness, distractedly making him tea. The reunion takes a dark turn when Lu attempts to touch his wife and she shouts at him, calling him by the wrong name and insisting he leave her home.
The scene marks the transition into the second half of the film, which makes up what it lacks in action with its incredibly moving portrayal of one man’s struggle to regain the family he has missed for over a decade.
Lu’s attempts to understand what has happened to his wife become desperate attempts to jog her memory. Lu — and viewers — are tormented by Wanyu’s unwavering dedication to the husband she does not realize is living directly across the street from her as she continues to visit the train station on the fifth of each month, per directions Lu sent her in a letter.
Lu’s persistent efforts to convince his wife of his identity with old pictures, piano music and the help of Dandan continue to be in vain. He appears to make a breakthrough when he “delivers” a trunk of old letters written to his wife while in prison and begins to read them to her each day.
Through these letters, Lu regains a kind of closeness with his wife and even communicates with her by writing new messages and slipping them in amongst the old ones. Lu repairs the strained relationship between Dandan and Wanyu, who forced her daughter to leave home when she betrayed her parents.
Despite this progress, as the film nears its end, emotionally invested viewers will be devastated to learn Wanyu never recognizes her devoted husband as anything more than “the letter-reading comrade.”
An achingly beautiful, subtle final scene shows a now-elderly Lu taking his wife to the train station on another fifth of the month. Snow falls as she waits yet again for the man who stands beside her.
While the background of the story feels incomplete at times — Lu’s political “crime” is never clear, for example — a viewer like myself, with little to no background in Chinese politics and cultural history, will easily be able to follow the plotline.
From the intriguing beginning to the tear-jerking end, “Coming Home” tackles the drama of a tragic romance and a torn family without feeling melodramatic or cliche. Careful attention to small details, like the notes Wanyu leaves herself to remember how to perform day-to-day tasks, deliver on emotional impact without needing dramatic moments to maintain viewer interest.
In fact, it is the film’s subtlety that allows it to have such an impact and perhaps suited it so well to its Valentine’s Day screening date.
“I feel this is a love story,” said Associate Professor of Chinese Xiaoling Shi in her introduction of the film. “It also sends a strong message.”
To me, the love story is what sends the strong message. The artfully woven messages of family, devotion, grief and, above all, love, come together to make “Coming Home” a must-see regardless of one’s nationality or culture.