Although set in the post-Cultural Revolution China of the late 1970s, "Coming Home" conjures up warm memories of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when international arthouse cinemas were brimming with a sensational series of films by director Zhang Yimou and his muse, onscreen and off, Gong Li.
Those half-dozen films, including "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live," were some of the first internationally seen Chinese films after the Cultural Revolution, although ironically most of them were banned in China, and they were by and large masterpieces that showed the plight of working-class families during Chairman Mao's purge.
Zhang and Gong broke up, Gong tried Hollywood ("Chinese Box," "Miami Vice") and worked with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang turned to Zhang Ziyi for his films and the Chinese film market has undergone a sea change. They worked together again in 2006's "Curse of the Golden Flower," a costume thriller made in that wave of films inspired by the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
At last, 20 years later, we have another masterpiece (or a near one), "Coming Home." Gong is Feng, a mother raising her talented teenage daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen, terrific). Feng's husband, Lu (Chen Daoming), has been imprisoned for years, a victim of the Cultural Revolution.
One day word comes that Lu has escaped. In an incident at a train station, she is injured in an unsuccessful attempt to help him escape.
Years later, Lu is released for good. But when he returns home, Feng, apparently suffering from some form of amnesia, doesn't recognize him. With his daughter's help, he attempts to re-establish their bond.
It's tough going. He establishes residence across the street from her apartment building, strikes up a friendship as a neighbor. When Lu was in prison, he wrote his wife letters that were never allowed to be sent. When he was released, he brought the letters home in a box.
Lu pretends the box of letters were sent to Feng, and since she can't read, he reads them to her. These are beautifully made scenes that make up the heart of the film.
Gong, nearing 50, turns in her best performance in years. Zhang's poetic seemingly simple adaptation of former Alameda resident Yan Geling's novel is well-suited for her talents. In fact, Zhang seems to be a bit re-energized himself. It's his best film in a while, as well, so much better than, say, "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop," an ill-advised remake of the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple."
I'm not sure if there's room in the new Chinese film world, which like American cinemas is now dominated by big-budget special effects films, for another series of Gong-Zhang films. But they should forge ahead. They've recaptured the magic.