Lawrence Toppman

‘Coming Home’ is just that for Zhang Yimou, Gong Li

A woman (Gong Li) cannot recognize her husband when he returns after a long detention in “Coming Home.”
A woman (Gong Li) cannot recognize her husband when he returns after a long detention in “Coming Home.” Sony Pictures Classics

From 1987 through 1995, actress Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou were cinematically inseparable. They teamed for his first seven features, including the Oscar-nominated “Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Shanghai Triad.”

Then they split, he to make the gorgeous, mystical action films “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” and she to work with other Chinese notables, such as Chen Kaige and Zhou Sun. They reunited just once, for the corny “Curse of the Golden Flower” in 2006; after that, both careers tailed off.

So watching the two reunite for “Coming Home,” a drama set mostly after the dreaded Cultural Revolution, will fan a nostalgic flame if you dove into Chinese cinema 30 years ago. It’s slighter and more sentimental than most of their work until it picks up steam near the end.

The first half-hour drops us into the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the period from 1966 through the mid-1970s when dictator Mao Zedong was especially ruthless. He crushed his opposition by torturing or imprisoning people or sending them to be “re-educated” in distant work camps.

Dissident professor Lu (Chen Daoming) escapes from one of these and goes home to see Yu (Gong Li), his teacher wife. Their teenage daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), hopes to win an important role in a Communist Party ballet and demonstrates her loyalty by reporting her father to authorities.

Yu suffers a blow to the head while trying to protect her husband; years later, when he’s finally released, she no longer knows who he is. She also thinks Dandan, now a textile worker, still attends ballet school – but she realizes her daughter betrayed the family.

Zhang and screenwriter Zou Jingzhi adapted Yan Geling’s novel, but they’re not clear about what’s wrong with Yu. (It seems at first like Alzheimer’s, as she can’t remember days and mixes identities.) A doctor later diagnoses “psychogenic amnesia,” and Lu moves into her neighborhood to begin a campaign to help her remember. What happens then becomes increasingly poignant, up to a powerful final scene.

The slender story seems overextended at times, with Lu finding new ways each week to insinuate himself into Yu’s life. Zhang doesn’t make a point once if he can make it twice, and the characters don’t change much over the middle hour.

Yet Zhang and the two main actors lived through the Cultural Revolution: Gong Li was 10 or 11 when it ended, and the men were in their 20s. Their memories must have stirred them, and there’s great pathos in Lu’s infinite patience and Yu’s terrible struggle to make sense of her own life.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Coming Home

Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen.

Director: Zhang Yimou.

Length: 109 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (some thematic material).