No one in China escaped the impact of the Cultural Revolution. During the decade-long crusade launched by Chairman Mao in 1966 to purge counterrevolutionaries from the Communist Party and recapture the ideological purity of the People’s Republic, schools and universities closed as students rebelled against their teachers, and cadres of young Red Guards policed the ideas of their elders, violently persecuting professionals, intellectuals, and cultural figures. Local communities descended into witch hunts, and there were armed clashes in the streets. Thousands of people were imprisoned, and millions—including some 16 million young people—were banished to the countryside to be “reeducated” among the peasant proletariat. The social chaos plunged China into serious economic distress, and by the time Mao died in 1976, a whole generation had been sidetracked for years by the promise of a glorious socialist rebirth.
Zhang Yimou, director of such international hits as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), was profoundly affected by the Cultural Revolution, though he’s seldom referenced it onscreen, and never more personally than he does with his latest drama, Coming Home. It’s the story of a professor (Daoming Chen) who’s been arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sentenced to hard labor in the fields—just as 19-year-old Zhang, son of a doctor who’d served in the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, was forced to work on a farm for three years and in a factory for seven more. The professor’s wife (Gong Li) pines for him, but she’s so traumatized by his ten-year disappearance that, when he finally returns, she can’t recognize him. The idea of a loved one being erased from memory provides an obvious but still potent metaphor for the social revisionism of the revolution, and it’s particularly appropriate for a storyteller like Zhang, who’s spent so many years concerning himself with the national memory.
As Zhang explained in a 2007 interview, he and his parents belonged to “what was called the ‘Black Five Categories’ of family backgrounds. That was a special name given to us during the Cultural Revolution to indicate that we were not from mainstream families, but rather from a bad background—from low-end families. . . . It was hard, indeed very severe; your position in society was really determined by your birth.” His studies terminated, Zhang was relocated to a rural area of northern China in 1969 to toil as a farmhand, then worked the night shift in a spinning mill, devoting his precious off-hours to painting and photography. The deprivation shaped him as an artist: “I experienced a lot of chaotic situations, and I saw a lot of terrible, tragic things happening around me. From all that I got a deep understanding of human life, of the human heart or spirit—of human society, really—and I think that it benefits me today: in my work, in my thinking, and even in how I deal with personal problems.”
Two years after the revolution ended, Zhang decided that his only escape from a life of manual labor would be a university education, and he managed to win admission to the cinematography department at the Beijing Film Academy. His directing debut, Red Sorghum (1987), met with international acclaim and established Zhang as a leading light of the “Fifth Generation” filmmakers then emerging from China. Set during the Sino-Japanese war, it also revealed a fascination with Chinese history that would fuel much of Zhang’s subsequent filmmaking. Over the years his stories have unfolded in the Warlord Era of the 1920s (Raise the Red Lantern), the Hong Kong underworld of the 1930s (Shanghai Triad), the Warring States period of the second century BC (Hero), and the Tang Dynasty during the ninth and tenth centuries (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower). His own history was another matter.
“For many years, I wanted to make movies about [the Cultural Revolution]—to discuss the suffering and to talk about fate and human relationships in a world that people couldn’t control and that was very hostile,” Zhang recalled. When he touched on the revolution in his 1994 epic To Live, however, Zhang discovered he was still living in a hostile world he couldn’t control. To Live follows a husband and wife through the Chinese Civil War, the founding of the People’s Republic, Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward program in the late 50s, and finally the Cultural Revolution, exposing the cruelty of fate in the most shocking and absurd fashion. Near the end of the film, a young woman arrives at a hospital to give birth, only to discover that the doctors have been sent to a reeducation center and replaced by cheery, ill-prepared interns. When complications ensue during the delivery, the woman bleeds to death. To Live was banned in China for years, and when it screened in competition at the Cannes film festival, the government barred Zhang from attending (his absence from the press conference was marked by an empty chair).
Zhang, his political energies apparently spent, retreated from overtly political stories, and in the two decades since To Live he’s sometimes been attacked from the left as a defender of the status quo. His martial arts adventures Hero was called a glorification of Chinese militarism, and he was jeered in 2008 for agreeing to direct the spectacular opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. As the New York Times put it, critics saw Zhang “playing the role of favored court artist—a kind of Chinese Leni Riefenstahl, creating beautiful backdrops for iron-fisted rulers.” Steven Spielberg’s decision to drop out of the Olympic project was personally embarrassing to Zhang, whose ardent nationalism has always been more complicated than people understand. As he once noted, he’s preoccupied with the Chinese people, but his films are seen more abroad than at home.
Coming Home arrives at a peculiar juncture in Zhang’s long career: The Flowers of War (2011), his $90 million drama about the Rape of Nanking, was supposed to become a global smash like Hero but flopped miserably outside China and Hong Kong. In response Zhang has scaled back, limiting his new movie to three major characters, but also doubled down as a social critic, revisiting the Cultural Revolution for the first time in 20 years. Like a finger tracing an old wound, Coming Home shows how one family has been torn apart by generational warfare. Lu, the former professor, escapes during a prisoner transfer at a train station, but when he returns home, his teenage daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), wants nothing to do with him. “I don’t know you,” she says when they encounter each other in her tenement hallway. A rigid Maoist, Dandan is preoccupied with her studies at the local dance academy, where she hopes to win the lead role in the upcoming production The Red Detachment of Women.
Lu is apprehended before he can reunite with his wife, Yu, and not until three years after the Cultural Revolution has ended does the party pronounce him rehabilitated and release him. Unfortunately by this time Yu has snapped from the pressure, and her doctor has diagnosed her with psychogenic amnesia, a sudden loss of personal memories. When Lu arrives home, Yu mistakes him for “Mr. Fang,” a party official who was helping her campaign for her husband’s release; her confusion is only exacerbated by the fact that Dandan has long since snipped every image of Lu’s face from the family portraits and photo albums. A party official gives Yu a letter stating that Lu will return on the fifth of the month; he already has, but for months afterward she shows up at the train station on the fifth, chaperoned by Lu himself, to meet her forgotten husband when he comes down the ramp. Every month she’s disappointed, and the iron gates guarding the exit ramp swing shut.
Despite these very public moments of disappointment and dislocation, most of Coming Home plays out in dimly lit interiors, in keeping with the shadows that envelop the family. (A spoiler follows.) The movie works best when Zhang is slowly unraveling Dandan’s story: during the escape, she cut a deal with the police to turn in her father, in hope of winning favor at the dance academy. When she tearfully confesses this to Lu, he calmly replies that he’s known all along—the party told him. I suspected it all along too, but was still struck by his sweet forgiveness and by a greater understanding of what drove Yu over the edge. Once this deftly handled subplot has run its course, though, Coming Home begins to list somewhat, with various attempts to jog Yu’s memory that might have come from a TV sitcom if they weren’t so dignified and beautifully shot. Only the ironic and inconclusive ending, with Lu and Yu fading into old age as companionable friends instead of lovers, rights the ship.
Zhang the radical, Zhang the reactionary—as Coming Home demonstrates, neither label really fits. Interviewed in 2007, the director expressed his desire to make more movies about the Cultural Revolution, but in the end he’s interested in history only insofar as it shows individuals struggling against, or being swept away by, its mighty currents. “It’s not that I want to make political films about the Cultural Revolution,” he explained in 2007, “but instead, with the Cultural Revolution as the background, I want to show the fate of people, their love and hate, their happiness and sadness, and the most valuable things in human nature that survived this recent period of Chinese history.” One of the most valuable things in human nature is memory, the power to order the world through past experience. With Coming Home, Zhang returns to the task of knocking at his own front door. v