Review, “Coming Home” (“Gui lai”), **** (out of ****)
Released May 16, 2014 (China) / September 9, 2015 (USA)
Love does not require waiting, it requires practice. And this practice, like anything that is practiced, can only become more comfortable each time. But if you are still waiting for a talisman, here it is: take the risk. “Coming Home”, the latest from Chinese A-list helmer Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”), is a film about the practice and risk-taking that love requires. The movie, set in the immediate aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1976, opens with a dance scene reminiscent of a sentiment that resonates throughout: do it, even if it hurts. A group of ballerinas is practicing choreography, en pointe. This is a difficult skill to master in ballet as it requires a dancer to support all of her body weight on her toes. Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), the daughter of our two main characters, and the other dancers practice constantly to master this and end up doing it gracefully. Dandan and her mother, teacher Feng Wanyu (Zhang’s sometime muse Gong Li), work to live as normal a life as possible in light of the fact that Feng’s husband and Dandan’s father, Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), has been imprisoned by the Chinese government during the early moments of the Cultural Revolution. Dandan was only three when her father was imprisoned, and nearly twenty when he is released, and she spends much of the film learning to know him.
When Lu arrives home he finds out that much in his household has changed. A severe disconnect has formed between him and his wife. But Lu is persistent. Eventually it becomes clear that the feelings of love never disappeared, just been buried under a wealth of coping mechanisms induced by circumstance. Have you ever played truth or dare with friends? I can only equate loving someone to this: if you accept the dare to love, you have to be ready to jump all in. Ain’t no half steppin’, as some might say. After witnessing Lu’s arrival home, the viewer is inclined to think thusly: Lu, loving this woman is risky, cut your losses. It will be difficult, but there will be someone else. But love isn’t about hedging bets, or about expecting the best outcomes, love is about taking a risk. To quote Andre 3000, ¨[N]othing is forever, so what makes love the exception?¨
Buddha once said: The difference between love and like is, when you love a plant you water it every day, and when you like a plant you pick it. If we think of humans as plants — that is, as living organisms requiring constant care — the parallels between Lu, and the lover in the subject of Buddha’s quote, are illuminated. After some time, it becomes clear that Lu will not be discouraged or deterred. His loving Feng is not about what his wife will validate in him. And it’s equally applicable to the way Feng’s love exists for her husband, she does not look for validation of the love she offers, she finds ways to provide for him what she believes he needs. Coming Home has led me to reinvestigate how I think of love, and it has brought me to the belief that love is marked not by what is returned to us, i.e. in the case of the flower: the beauty it can add to wherever we bring it after we have picked it, love is marked by what we can (and are willing) to give to something or someone else, i.e. in the case of the flower, constant water. The flowers we pick no longer need our attention, and care. The ones we let grow will always need our, dare I say, love, to keep growing.
Lovers are daredevils. Amidst a revolutionary China, Feng dares not let her memory, her heart, her love, be dictated by a party or comrades, by her daughter Dandan, or even by Lu. He stumbles upon some traumatic information while home, and starts to infer this is why Feng won’t recognize him the way he remembers her, and at the very moment of his revelation, you think: This is it. He is giving up. There is no “fixing” this relationship. Instead, is motivated in the opposite direction, because he had already made a decision. You can’t start loving halfway through, strife doesn’t push you to love, love helps you get through the tough times. A daredevil makes a decision to complete a dare without ever knowing what the outcome will be beforehand.
Love is about adaptation, as with all natural things. In order to exist they adapt to changing conditions. Here, both Yu and her damaged husband have been forced to adapt their love for each other. Because they had decided to love each other, they were able to adapt. Subversive, isn’t it?
“Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it’s cracked up to be. That’s why people are so cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”