The whole point of melodrama -- its allure and its danger, especially for those whose job is not just to watch movies, but to scrutinize them -- is to make us surrender. Zhang Yimou's Coming Home is pure melodrama, with all the unfiltered feeling that promises. The story opens in the early-to-mid-1970s, near the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. Political prisoner Lu (Chen Daoming) escapes and tries to make his way home to his wife, Feng (the marvelous Gong Li), and teenage daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen), who was a toddler when he was taken away. The authorities have told both Feng and Dan Dan about the escape, urging them to report back if Lu tries to contact them. Feng is loyal; Dan Dan, an aspiring ballerina hoping to curry favor with state officials, betrays her father to the authorities. As he's being taken away, Feng falls and suffers a head injury. Three years later, at the end of Mao's decade-long purge, Lu is released -- only to discover that Feng no longer recognizes him.
Coming Home comes together with soft, stippled brushstrokes. The movie's delicate surprises take shape in the ways Lu reconnects with his wife, and in how he makes peace with Dan Dan, whose actions have driven her and her mother apart. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding extends that gossamer touch to the look of the film. Gong and Chen give performances that feel lived in, like clothes whose very threads have become attuned to the shape and movement of the wearer. I'm unembarrassed about giving in to Coming Home. Why else go to the movies?