By Chris Nashawaty
September 02, 2015 at 06:49 PM EDT
Bai XiaoYan
  • Movie

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s career behind the camera has unfolded in almost parallel fashion with that of his most famous muse in front of it, Gong Li. The director and his luminous leading lady both made their movie debuts with the 1987 art-house hit, Red Sorghum. Now, nearly three decades (and several brilliant collaborations) later, the pair has reunited for the heart-rending romance Coming Home. Like tributaries flowing side by side, these two seem to be at their strongest—and deepest—when they run together.

Set in China during the chaotic late stages of the Cultural Revolution, the film tells the bittersweet story of a fiercely devoted couple who are separated when the husband (Chen Daoming’s Lu) is sent to a labor camp as a political casualty of his era. His wife (Gong Li) is left behind dreaming of his return while their petulant teenage daughter (Zhang Huiwen) is brainwashed by the Party to resent and eventually betray him. Years pass, and Lu is finally released. He returns home only to find that his loving family is shattered. His daughter, long stripped of her dream of becoming a ballerina, is now working at a factory. Meanwhile, his wife has suffered some sort of physical or psychological trauma and doesn’t recognize him. He’s become a stranger to her. Desperate to jog her memory, Lu concocts a series of ploys, eventually resigning himself to the fact that he will have to be nothing more than a new acquaintance to her in order to be close to her.     

Based on a novel by Geling Yan, Coming Home is a beautifully acted (especially by Daoming), emotionally devastating love story that’s as much about historical amnesia as it is about one person’s. As it builds toward its beautifully heartbreaking and tender last scene, chances are you’ll be reduced to a sobbing puddle of tears. Yimou’s lovely import is the kind of lump-in-your-throat drama they don’t make much anymore, at least in Hollywood. Watching Coming Home you’ll wonder why that is—and who we can write a letter to to fix it. A-