I’ve often wondered what the movie The Notebook would like it if it wasn’t packed to the gills with trite sentimentalism and forced messaging. That’s a snobbish perspective, I admit, but the movie’s popularity baffled me upon its release, and its continued popularity continues to baffle me. My cinematic snobbery aside, there’s something about this movie that resonates and that’s not quite as easily dismissed as my upturned nose would like to believe. So while I’ll never argue or defend that The Notebook should be seen as a standard of moviemaking or narrative achievement, I keep coming back to my original question: What would it look like if The Notebook was a good movie? Coming Home is, in many ways, the answer to that question.
Set in China during the Cultural Revolution, Coming Home is a tale of love in the face of tragedy, a musing upon the depths humans are willing to suffer simply for the sake of being nearest the ones that they love. Lu Yanshi (Daoming Chen) is a political prisoner, forced away from his family for decades as part of his reeducation for speaking out against the communist party. Upon his release, he journeys back to his home to be reunited with his wife, Feng (Li Gong) only to discover that she is suffering from amnesia and that she no longer recognizes him as her husband. Instead, she sees him as a local servant, whom she utilizes for help around the house in preparation for her husband’s imminent return. Dutifully and full of adoration for the woman he married, Lu suffers silently, offering his assistances when he can as a means of maintaining any sort of relationship with Feng.
Director Yimou Zhang is best known to American audiences for his neo-kung fu epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Though his resume is littered with stark period pieces and romances, Coming Home might be the first exposure many in America have with this side of his repertoire and it’s the perfect introduction. It’s a heartbreaking examination of love in its purest form, which is an expression of emotion that transcends language and culture.
Based on a novel by Geling Yan, the script manages to walk the line between emotional resonance and emotional pap without ever descending into triteness. Chen gives a heartfelt performance as a man devastated by his wife’s debilitation, channeling pain into devotion in order to make the most of his situation. His wounded expressions are subtle, as he listens to his wife’s reminisces on her missing husband without being able to convince her of his true identity. Gong, meanwhile, is a woman lost, who travels to the train station day after day in hopes of being reunited with her husband.
It’s difficult to watch, wanting, as we do, to see the two become reunited and to live happily ever after. But there’s a kind of sweetness in that desire that never gets sappy. The sweeping romance of Coming Home is hard not to get caught up in, with its tender moments and tragic undertones. It’s the kind of love story that crosses generations and cultures, touching upon the elements of humanity that are implicit in us all.
Coming Home is now playing in limited release.