‘Coming Home’ examines the lengths we’ll go to for love

“Coming Home” (“Gui lai”) (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen, Guo Tao, Yan Ni, Zhang Jiayi, Ding Jiali, Chen Xiaoyi, Liu Peiqi, Zu Deng, Xin Baiqing. Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenplay: Zou Jingzhi. Book: Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. Web site. Trailer.

How far will you go for the one you love? How deep do your feelings run? Are you prepared to go to the wall for your beloved? And do you have what it takes to make it happen? Those are among the questions raised in the affecting new love story from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, “Coming Home” (“Gui lai”).

Life during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) inflicted many hardships on the country’s population. As an attempt by Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) to purge the nation of any remnants of capitalism and traditional culture, this oppressive sociopolitical movement sought to impose the Party’s ideology on virtually all public and private aspects of Chinese society. To ensure citizen compliance with these objectives, the Party placed operatives and informants seemingly everywhere to quietly but affirmatively ensure conformity. Those who served the fulfillment of official goals were richly rewarded, but those who ran afoul of the Party line were subjected to stringent enforcement measures. Citizens accused of “dissident” behavior were often sent to remote prison camps for re-education, a practice that resulted in great personal anguish and the fragmentation of many families.

The agony of one such family provides the central narrative of “Coming Home.” In the early days of the Revolution, Lu Yanshi (Lu) (Chen Daoming), a professor accused of being a radical, is sent to a prison camp, leaving behind his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu) (Gong Li), to raise their young daughter, DanDan (Zhang Huiwen). As a single mother who works as a teacher, Yu manages to get by and, over time, she watches DanDan grow into a talented, aspiring ballerina. However, the stigma of Lu’s internment hangs heavily over them, placing mother and daughter under routine surveillance – and even harsher scrutiny when Lu escapes.

When interrogated by authorities, Yu claims no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts. DanDan, now a teenager, concurs, adding that she wouldn’t even be able to recognize her father, because he was taken away when she was a mere child. But, despite her official plea of ignorance, Yu is well aware of Lu’s tenacious character, knowing that, if he has been fortunate enough to successfully escape, he will make an attempt to contact her, a prospect she views with a volatile mix of rapturous anticipation and all-consuming fear.

Not long thereafter, Lu manages to slip a message to Yu, instructing her to meet him the following day at a nearby train station. However, in doing so, he encounters DanDan, who, in fear of her own safety, clandestinely informs officials of her father’s return. And so, when Yu and Lu attempt to meet the next day, the authorities are waiting for them. As the long-separated lovers desperately run toward one another, Lu is captured, and Yu is forcefully restrained. Lu is taken away while Yu looks on in panic, emotionally distraught as she struggles to break free. In fact, Yu’s protest becomes so vehement that authorities wrestle her to the ground, the impact causing a serious head injury.

Three years later, with the Cultural Revolution now over and conditions in China beginning to change, Lu is released from detention. He anxiously awaits a reunion with his beloved. But, when he arrives home, he receives quite a shock: Even though Yu was informed of Lu’s impending release, she doesn’t recognize him when she sees him, believing him to be someone else. Lu is understandably confused – and then devastated – but he’s determined to find a way to connect with her.

After consulting Yu’s doctor (Zhang Jiayi), Lu learns that his wife is suffering from a severe case of amnesia. Unfortunately, no medications, treatments or procedures are available to address Yu’s condition, so, if Lu hopes to reach her, he will have to look for other ways to do so. With the aid of DanDan, with whom he has now reconciled, and others (like longtime friend Gong Suzhen (Chen Xiaoyi)), Lu begins employing a variety of innovative measures to try and jog Yu’s memory.

Will Lu succeed? Only time – and the power of belief – will tell.

If Yu and Lu are so devoted to one another, one can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t recognize him upon his return. Why, for example, does she believe him to be someone else? Indeed, isn’t it a stretch to think that she would utterly fail to recognize someone whom she supposedly loves? And how did her amnesia arise? As a result of the head injury she sustained during her failed reunion three years earlier? Or was something else at fault?

The key word in the foregoing paragraph is “believe.” What Yu believes is what matters, for it dictates what she experiences, shaping the nature of her reality through the conscious creation process. But, if that’s true, why, then, has Yu created circumstances where she doesn’t recognize her husband, especially if she is so committed to him?

As becomes apparent, Yu endured a number of hardships during the many years of Lu’s absence. First there’s the pervasive loneliness of her daily existence. How she was able to bear such sadness is truly hard to fathom.

Then there’s the difficulty of raising a child on her own. Even though Yu did a commendable job with her daughter’s upbringing, DanDan willingly bought into many of the Cultural Revolution’s teachings, a necessity for aspiring talents to get ahead in a repressive society. What’s more, in light of Lu’s absence (and the official reasons given for it), DanDan developed quite a resentment for her missing father. These developments quietly trouble Yu; as someone who grew into adulthood before the Revolution, her outlook is somewhat more open-minded than that of her daughter. She’s also heartbroken that DanDan has come to despise the father she barely knows, a man whom Yu knows to be very different from the way others have portrayed him.

On top of all this there’s the ever-present threat of state scrutiny. Whenever questions arise about Lu – be it his whereabouts, his political views or other considerations – Yu and DanDan are subjected to intrusive, intimidating interrogation by Party officials. What’s worse, however, authorities may have coerced Yu into acts even more shocking, humiliating and degrading in an attempt to get the answers being sought.

Most everyone would probably agree that bearing up under such conditions would be difficult, if not impossible. In fact, what if they truly were more than what one could successfully withstand? How would one cope?

One solution would be to escape. But, if that weren’t physically possible, then one might attempt to do so psychologically to get away from the pain. By creating circumstances that enable such a state of mind, one could block out the agony and dodge its effects. And, as in manifesting any type of creation, the key lies in one’s beliefs.

If Yu were to believe that her pain was more than she could bear, then perhaps she chose to embrace beliefs that allowed her to block out the anguish, an act of self-protection (even if not consciously acknowledged as such). This is not to suggest she no longer loves Lu; quite the contrary, as evidenced by the anticipation she exhibits when she receives official word of his return. However, if the act of loving her husband has caused her so much despair for so many years, then perhaps she may have decided that she could bear no more, even after his return, possibly out of fear that her sorrow would continue, despite his presence and the emergence of changing social conditions. Hence her failure to recognize Lu when he returns home.

Some would argue that Yu’s amnesia resulted from the head injury she suffered, and that might be true to an extent, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. In my view, the injury could have been the trigger for the amnesia, but that wouldn’t have occurred if Yu hadn’t already embraced beliefs that drew those circumstances to her in the first place. By employing intents that bring about the conditions that make the sought-after outcome possible, Yu thus manifests physically what she needs to realize the intended results.

Some might also argue that this would seem to be a rather extreme solution. But, then, weren’t Yu’s prevailing circumstances rather extreme as well? Maybe it takes a lot to get a lot, and that’s quite possibly what Yu did.

Of course, Yu isn’t the only one employing extreme measures in this scenario; Lu does, too. In an attempt to get his wife back, Lu realizes he must resort to some drastic – and innovative – measures. Since he’s dealing with an amnesiac, the key is to try things that might jog Yu’s memories. By engaging in acts that he believes will reach Yu, Lu seeks to prompt the re-emergence of the woman he once knew. Of course, since this is a co-creation between two partners, both must agree to its manifestation if it’s ever to be realized.

For Lu, this is an exercise in pushing the limits of his beliefs to seek the outcome he desires. This involves formulating ideas and intents that require thinking unconventionally and trying the untried. It also includes making use of resources not previously considered. For instance, Lu understands he has a better chance of succeeding if he recruits DanDan’s assistance in the process. Given their long-standing estrangement, that prospect may not seem likely at first. But, thanks to the successful reconciliation Lu brokers with his daughter, he’s able to win over a valuable ally, providing himself access to a source of support he might have once thought impossible to draw upon.

Under conditions as difficult as these, however, it would be wise to prepare for contingencies. This is yet another instance in which beliefs play a crucial role. Changes in circumstances frequently necessitate altered courses of action (and the beliefs that underlie them). As Yu, Lu and DanDan maneuver through their collective odyssey, they should consider the possibilities open to them to come up with solutions amenable to all concerned. What they end up choosing to do may well come as a surprise to viewers and characters alike. In the end, though, it all comes down to the beliefs they hold, particularly those associated with matters of the heart.

“Coming Home” is a profoundly moving romance set against a backdrop of difficult conditions, with superb performances by Gong Li and Chen Daoming as the perpetually thwarted lovers. The film’s sets, costumes and art direction – all dark and virtually devoid of color – reflect the despairing mood of the narrative, but these bleak elements are effectively offset by the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists, as well as a beautiful soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography. Somewhat surprisingly, the picture presents a remarkably candid portrayal of the impersonal callousness of the Cultural Revolution, a truly astonishing feat for a Chinese production.

The power of love frequently drives us to great lengths. Given the potency of the beliefs that underlie it, we feel compelled to follow through on those intents to see our heart’s desires fully realized. And that’s a good thing, for few endeavors are more deserving of our efforts and attention. But then that’s because few ventures offer us rewards nearly as gratifying.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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