At his best, Zhang Yimou integrates image, action, and character into a soaring metaphor of the human condition. Many of his films — “Red Sorghum” (1987), “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), “To Live” (1994) — star Gong Li. In the heartbreaking melodrama “Coming Home,” an unlikely combination of Douglas Sirk and Jorge Luis Borges, both the director and the actress triumph.
Almost unrecognizable as the middle-aged schoolteacher Feng Wanyu, Gong gives a performance that recalls her glamorless peasant woman in Zhang’s “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992). Unlike that heroine, however, Feng is resigned to the will of authorities, in this case the fanatics of the Cultural Revolution, who have imprisoned her husband, Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming). Instead of resisting, she sacrifices everything for their daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), who dreams of playing the lead role in the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.”
Ten years pass and her husband escapes. Local party hacks pressure Feng into turning her husband in if he tries to contact her. Dan Dan also argues for betraying her father, so as not to thwart her ambitions. Feng defies them all. But Lu is captured anyway, and Feng is injured.
Amnesia is one of the more hackneyed of plot devices, but it still resounds because memory signifies so much — history, identity, and what remains when time takes everything away. Lu returns, but Feng suffers memory loss and has forgotten her husband’s face.
She waits at the station when he returns, but doesn’t recognize him. Lu invents schemes to restore her memory. He sends her a letter saying he’ll return on the 5th, but doesn’t specify which month. So every month on the 5th she waits at the gate with a sign with Lu’s name on it, and each time he passes unnoticed. In one scene the rain blurs the letters on the sign, and when she returns home she copies the letters so she won’t forget them — a vivid symbol of her waning faculties.
Lu keeps trying, and each ploy is more wrenching than the last, developing Zhang’s central conceit into a profound climax. After a period of creative drought, Zhang’s homecoming is a cause for celebration.
★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zou Jingzhi, based on the novel by Yan Geling. Starring Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen. At Kendall Square, West Newton, Danvers.
109 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic material). In Mandarin, with subtitles.