Moviegoers should be familiar with films about the physical and emotional torment caused by the terrible upheavals of the Mao Era. Think of FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, BLUE KITE, TO LIVE, and SUNFLOWER. Less examined, at least to my knowledge, is the aspect of psychological trauma, the effects of which can be radical beyond the political, social, and personal. The loss of sanity itself. On the intimate scale, it is more terrifying to lose sanity in a sane world than to retain sanity in an insane one. Mao era was an insane period, but many people still managed to preserve a modicum of sanity. Even amidst the ideological fervor, most people at least retained the basic sense of time and reality. They could be driven to do terrible things, but at least they knew what they did and why. In a world gone insane, even Red Guards, rabid and murderous as they were, knew what day of the month it was.
Despite their political madness, they still had psychological sanity.
It is what is lost in COMING HOME where Gong Li's character, due to emotional duress and/or physical trauma, loses her ability to retain new memory and to recognize her husband. Viewers will find shades of MEMENTO and MULHOLLAND DR., though the similarity is somewhat jarring because it co-mingles with the humanism that the Fifth Generation Chinese Filmmakers became famous for. Generally, we associate humanism with ordinary people faced with worldly problems. COMING HOME begins in that context but lurches into something closer to psychological drama. This shift isn't entirely convincing and is even a bit gimmicky. But even if COMING HOME isn't art, it has heart in the right place. We learn that there are many meanings to the idea of 'coming home'. There is the physical journey of the husband from prison. But there is also the journey of the soul and spirit of the woman who still awaits her husband whom she no longer recognizes. She awaits his return home while he awaits her return to sanity. For her, there is the never-fading hope of his return, and for him, there's the realization that she will never return to him. But in their mutual patience and acceptance, they are reunited on a deeper level.
As horrible as the Mao years were, sanity allowed the survivors to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and start on a mending process. But for those who lost their sanity, there was no going home. This film is a fine tribute to those lives.