In my opinion, ACMI is one of the best cinemas in Melbourne.
Home to a myriad of special cinema events and exhibitions, currently one of their biggest events is China Up Close, which includes several smaller exhibitions, including one on the collaborative work of filmmaker Zhang Yimou and actor Gong Li.
Their latest collaboration is in Coming Home, a film set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, which tore families apart. I say backdrop because the film doesn’t delve into the politics or the history of the Cultural Revolution, but it isn’t just a backdrop – it’s the crux of the narrative.
Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is an academic who is sent to a labour camp, leaving behind his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and teenager daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), a ballet student. He escapes and attempts to meet his wife again, but Dandan reveals their meeting plans to the police, tempted by the chance to dance the leading role. Lu is captured.
Years later, Lu returns to find a broken family. Dandan has stopped dancing and works in a textile factory, and Feng suffers from amnesia, and doesn’t recognise him anymore.
Lu sets out to restore his wife’s memory and bring his family back together through various means – showing her old photos, playing familiar tunes on their old piano, reading her letters – and that journey makes up the bulk of the film. It’s an incredibly simple premise, and the result is a quietly restrained film bursting with life and feeling and sadness.
Coming Home can be easily compared to The Notebook, but it’s a lazy comparison. They couldn’t be more different. Coming Home eschews a clear narrative arc for what feels like the unfolding of a life in front of our eyes. It avoids swelling musical refrains manipulating the audience’s emotions, instead allowing the characters to speak for themselves. They’re both love stories, but Coming Home is a smaller one – there are no epic declarations of love in the rain, no striking Hollywood actors – simply a family trying to piece itself back together, and a man taking care of his wife, even if she doesn’t know who he is anymore.
The cinematography is, fitting with the pacing, restrained and elegant. There are some zooms that feel unnecessary and jarring, but for the most part, the simple, peaceful shots (the falling snow, the small apartment, the letters) are reminiscent of real life in a way that encourages the audience to empathise.
It was dark in the cinema, but I’m pretty confident in saying that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Coming Home is all the more emotionally devastating because unlike the Hollywood films we’re used to, there are no big grand romantic gestures, no peak, no real resolution. Coming Home is more like life – you try your best, and sometimes things don’t work out, and all you have is life.
Coming Home screens at ACMI 6 March, and screens nationally from 9 April.