In the mid-20th century, movie audiences understood the value of a good melodrama: A picture like Now, Voyager or Black Narcissus or almost anything by Douglas Sirk could be an urn into which you could pour your own unarticulated feelings of loss and loneliness. The heightened, unrealistic intensity of those movies wasn't a mistake that the filmmakers somehow failed to correct, but a way of drilling past everyday surface anxieties — the random little worries that plague us — to get to a deeper stratum of emotional intensity, the feelings we so often push down in the mere act of living. Melodrama hasn't died — it survived through the '80s and '90s with effective, if not necessarily good, pictures like Ghost and The Bridges of Madison County — but it seems that today's audiences are wary of it, preferring to get it filtered through the spectacle of superheroes. For now, the old-fashioned, mainstream Hollywood melodrama is a fairly dormant art form. What will the Americans who get to see Zhang Yimou's tender and unapologetically fervent Coming Home make of it?
Coming Home, Yimou's first film since the 2011 historical drama The Flowers of War, is pure melodrama, with all the unfiltered feeling that promises. The story opens in the early-to-mid-1970s, near the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. Political prisoner Lu (Chen Daoming, who played Emperor Qin in Yimou's 2002 Hero) escapes and tries to make his way home to his wife, Feng (the marvelous Gong Li, who has often worked with Yimou), and teenage daughter Dan Dan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen), who was a toddler when he was taken away. The authorities have told both Feng and Dan Dan about the escape, urging them to report back if Lu tries to contact them. Feng is loyal; Dan Dan, an aspiring ballerina hoping to curry favor with state officials, sees her father on the landing of the family's flat and betrays him to the authorities, unbeknownst to Feng; he's captured the next day, just as Feng has gone to the train station to meet him, secretly, with provisions. As he's being taken away, Feng falls and suffers a head injury. Three years later, at the end of Mao's decade-long purge, Lu is released — only to discover that Feng no longer recognizes him. She's certain her husband will appear soon — she clings to the date she's been told he'll return, "the fifth of the month" — but she considers the man before her a stranger.
Coming Home — which was adapted from a novel by Yan Geling, who also wrote the source material for The Flowers of War — comes together with soft, stippled brushstrokes rather than broad plot turns. The movie's delicate surprises take shape in the ways Lu reconnects with his wife, and in how he makes peace with Dan Dan, whose actions have driven her and her mother apart. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding extends that gossamer touch to the look of the film. The family's modest apartment is shot in muted, cozy gray tones; Dan Dan's ballet rehearsal — in which a troupe of muscular young dancers pirouette and leap with wooden rifles as props — is more vibrantly colorful, though it suggests a false promise, the allure of following the rules as opposed to the clean, frightening thrill of breaking them.
Yimou teases out the best in his actors, or perhaps he knows enough to just sit back and watch and listen. Gong and Chen give performances that feel lived in, like clothes whose very threads have become attuned to the shape and movement of the wearer. In the movie's most stunning section, Lu has a small trunk delivered to Feng. It's too heavy for her to lift — he carries it for her. It's difficult to open — he helps raise the lid. Inside are hundreds of letters written on scraps of paper, letters that Lu had written Feng from prison but was unable to send. She looks at them in awe, wondering why the handwriting is so illegible. "Perhaps," Lu says kindly, "they were written in the dark." He offers to read the letters to her, returning each day to read more. When she greets him cheerfully at the door — "You're the letter-reading comrade!" — Lu's eyes show amusement and joy, but you can't miss the thrumming undercurrent of sadness.
There are some problems with Coming Home — for me, the big one is the score. (It's built on a pale, wan piano motif that too closely resembles "My Heart Will Go On.") But I cringe at the word "tearjerker," perhaps because I'm never fully sure what it indicates: that it's bad or stupid to cry at movies? That movies that make us cry are cheaply manipulative and thus automatically suspect? It's true that terrible movies are often capable of getting the waterworks going. (I wept at the end of The Perfect Storm, though I wouldn't want to vouch for the picture's craftsmanship.) But "tearjerker" is too often used as a viewer's — or a critic's — way of asserting superiority over the material. And the whole point of melodrama — its allure and its danger, especially for those whose job is not just to watch movies, but to scrutinize them — is to make us surrender. When I think of Chen's Lu reading his own letters to his wife, I'm unembarrassed about giving in to Coming Home. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself one question: Why else go to the movies?