You could say that Zhang Yimou’s new film Coming Home has been forty years in coming home. Powerful emotionally, Coming Home, portrays the heartache, pain and suffering within families caused by Chinese government policies during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But this huge political subtext is missing. Because Zhang is the director (Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, To Live) and the female lead is played by the stunning and talented Gong Li, we pay attention yet wonder is the missing background context purposeful omission to pass the censors or ellipses to craft a more potent story?
Zhang Yimou is a member of the now famous Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who made a splash in the 1990s, including Chen Kaige (Farewell my Concubine) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite).
Coming Home is not the first film of this cohort to address the psychological suffering caused by cruel excesses of political movements in 20th Century China. Zhang’s ambitious and sad 1994 film, To Live, traced a family saga from the gambling dens and civil war of the 1940s to the hardships of the Great Leap Forward and the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. In To Live, audiences learn how ideology offers no real salve for psyches and souls damaged by government policies. Zhang clearly blames Communist Party initiated movements for one family’s tragedies as the heroine pleads, “You owe us a life.” For this film, Zhang Yimou and his lead actress, Gong Li, were barred from filmmaking for two years.
In the twenty years since then Zhang has made mostly apolitical and sometimes confusing films. And his good behavior was grandly rewarded with the crème de la crème assignment – the Olympics opening and closing. To Live is never shown in China. But now he has returned to the emotional turf of that film, without the context.
Perhaps the most honest film about the effects of Chinese Communist Party policies and movements was Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film, The Blue Kite. It tells the story of an ordinary woman and her extended family during the chaotic movements and upheavals of mid-century China. Mao’s image is ubiquitous, slogans and loudspeakers are everywhere, neighborhood committees intrude, one character dies in a labor reform camp, another succumbs to malnutrition during the drought and economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward,yet another dies at the hands of the Red Guards. While the film never blames The Party’s leaders, there’s a sense that people get caught up in political zealotry to survive their lives. It is their patriotic duty to inform on friends or loved ones. A child’s blue kite symbolizes hope. When the cultural censors rejected The Blue Kite, the director smuggled it out to Japan to be edited. It has never been screened in China.
Tian Zhuangzhuang didn’t make films for the next ten years. Today The Blue Kite, like To Live, is only known to audiences outside of China.
Now more than twenty years later Zhang Yimou has made a film set in that volatile mid-twentieth century China that will pass the censure of the cultural police. In Coming Home he has carefully articulated the psychological trauma within families created by Party initiated ideological purification movements without reference to the Party, it’s leaders or any details about those damaging policies.
The story begins in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese city. A young ballet dance troupe is rehearsing The Red Detachment of Women – one of the few cultural productions deemed worthy by Madame Mao at the time (left unexplained in the movie, so it is only meaningful to those who know or remember the Cultural Revolution). There is a competition and two teenagers, including Dan Dan, are practicing and competing to make the lead. Next, Dan Dan and her mother are brought before school administrators – we can only assume they are Party functionaries — who inform them that Dan Dan’s father, Lu Yanshi, has just escaped from jail. Dan Dan and her mother, Feng, are warned – threatened — that there could be dire consequences if he tries to contact them. Throughout the film, we are never told about Lu’s crimes, only in this early scene the school official spits out that he was “a Rightist.” It is the only time we hear his crime in the film. Being a Rightist.
For those who understand little of China’s history, this label might evaporate into the ether, but among a certain generation in China, this epithet – to be labeled a “Rightist” – could mean punishment, humiliation, losing your job, going to a jail, a labor reform camp in the far remote regions of the country, or worse. And, most importantly, it tainted the entire family. During both the anti-Rightist campaign of the mid-50s and again during the Cultural Revolution, the crime of being labeled a Rightist meant children might turn against parents, wives against husbands, because the whole family could be smeared and suffer because one member is labeled a Rightist.
From 1957 to 59 Mao instigated a series of campaigns to purge the Communist Party of so-called “Rightists.” The definition was inconsistent but it targeted mostly intellectuals, especially those in the legal profession. They were accused of being sympathetic to capitalism, too critical of collectivization then underway, or pro free-expression. The Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957, encouraged professionals and intellectuals like Lu Wanshi, a professor, to raise criticisms of the progress of the new society. After they came forward they were smacked down and punished. They lost their jobs and many were sent off to far flung locations to “re-education through labor”camps. Some were sentenced to death. In China today the anti-Rightist campaigns of the late 1950s – including the Hundred Flowers Movement – are taboo topics in publishing or the media.
In Coming Home we never learn about this context, rather we watch the daughter turn against her father for her own career advantage. When Lu tries to contact his wife, Feng Wanyu, after his jail break, DanDan informs the Party spies who are stationed outside her family’s apartment building watching for the father. And perhaps we should be sympathetic with the daughter. She was only three when her father was hauled off to jail. For those of us who can do the math, we realize her father was jailed during that late 50s anti-Rightist campaign. Dan Dan never knew her father and now she is passed over for the lead in the ballet because of her father’s jail break.
Defying the authorities, Dan Dan’s mother, Feng Wanyu, prepares food and blankets and sends a note to her husband to meet her at the train station. In the most suspenseful and harrowing scene of the film we see him hiding under embankments near the tracks, her jostling the crowds with her bundle, and the Party police, tipped off by the vengeful Dan Dan, in hot pursuit. Lu is captured and sent off to a labor camp. Feng ends up with a bloody blow to the head.
The story then jumps to the end of the Cultural Revolution. Lu is released from his labor camp – which we never see — to find that Dan Dan, now estranged from her mother, because of what she did, has given up ballet, works in a factory, and lives in a dormitory. Now the heart wrenching melodrama begins. When Lu visits his old apartment he finds his wife has amnesia and no longer recognizes him.
The most poignant scenes of the film trace his efforts to jolt his wife’s memories of their relationship and of him. At one point he presents himself as a piano tuner and then plays the pieces he once played for her. Feng Wangyu is clearly devoted to him since she goes regularly to the train station to search for him among the returnees coming home from banishment – yet another scene that is given no context. Millions of adults and youth were returning home from labor reform camps, jails and banishment to far flung factories and communes at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Finally, Lu reads to her from the letters he wrote to her while in the prison camp but never mailed. Although she becomes enamored of the letter-reader, she never recognizes him as her husband. In the process Lu learns about a Party official who tried to take sexual advantage of Feng while Lu was incarcerated. In the final scene, Lu is her pedi-cab driver standing next to Feng at the train station as she searches the crowds for her husband while holding her handmade sign with his name.
The story is adapted from the novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi, written by the well known novelist Geling Yan. It tells the story of a professor sent to a labor prison camp during the anti-Rightist campaigns of the 1950s when more than a half million Chinese were persecuted as intellectuals.
In an interview with Olivia Gent, for the webzine, China Real Time, Ms. Yan, who now lives in Berlin, was asked to discuss her thoughts about Zhang’s adaptation of her work and the criticisms that have been raised for his leaving out the harsh realities that she portrays in the novel about the prison and reform-through-labor camp.
Ms. Yan replied: “Considering film censorship in China, he was also limited in his choices and had to make a movie based on the latter half of my novel. In the movie, Zhang makes us realize that some memories have been filtered out and helps us imagine what those memories might be. We imagine how [his wife] entered this state of forgetfulness, what their life must have been like together and what kind of love they shared.”
Back to ellipsis vs. omission. While Zhang Yimou may have omitted the devastating ideological movements underlying his characters suffering, he does not spare the economic realities of late 60s and mid-70s China. Since I worked in a government institution in Beijing in 1980, I recognized that grey urban landscape created by coal pollution, the crowded housing without central heating. The ubiquitous bicycles. The uniform fashions. And, if the political bedrock is absent from the film the texture of the psychological landscape of a disrupted and damaged family is extraordinary. A husband and father sent to jail – for ideological crimes. A family persecuted as a result. A daughter turning against her father for her own advantage or in revenge and therefore causing even more pain to everyone. Is the film stronger through ellipsis?
When I worked in Beijing in 1980, the new films and short stories of what came to be labeled “Scar” literature were just beginning to address some of this suffering. But they were often wooden and overly cautious as if the politicization of language over the previous thirty years had crippled psychological character portrayal. Perhaps this is the great artistry of Zhang Yimou. To recapture, take back what is most human. Our emotional need for each other.
But what is the message of this film? Memory is too painful therefore it’s better to forget? To recover from catastrophic episodes of history requires forgetting? Peace comes with forgetting? Or is it really about love and acceptance and interdependence? What do you think? The power of ellipsis or the tragedy of omission?