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Heartbreaking 'Coming Home' is a study of genuine love
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Chen Daoming as Lu Yanshi in Coming Home." - photo by Josh Terry
Coming Home comes to a close with one of the sweetest, most heartbreaking images you may see on the big screen this year. It wouldnt be appropriate to describe it beyond saying that it represents the essence of love.

Suffice to say, Coming Home is a pretty heartbreaking movie. It is built around the plight of Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) a political prisoner in China who is finally released after 20 years of incarceration only to find that his wife Feng Wanyu (Yu for short, played by Li Gong), doesnt recognize him.

The doctors call it psychogenic amnesia. In a painful twist of fate, whenever Yu sees her husband she instead sees the face of an abusive man who was supposed to be helping to secure Lus release.

The couple shares a daughter, Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen). Dan Dan is an aspiring dancer whose loyalty to the Party led her to block an earlier reunion for her parents. When her mother discovered her treachery, Dan Dan was expelled from her home, and her lofty dreams slowly eroded away.

The bulk of the film, based on a novel by Geling Yan and directed by Yimou Zhang, takes place shortly after the conclusion of Chinas Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s. Dan Dans passions have been humbled, Yu lives in the family home in a fog of memory and Lu has been released on the assumption that he has been rehabilitated. But their family is broken, and Coming Home is the story of their attempt to reassemble its shattered pieces.

What follows is an uncommon love story as Lu tries to find a way to reconnect with his wife. Yu has been informed that her husband has been released and travels to the local train station on the fifth of every month to greet him, but whenever Lu approaches her, he is still a stranger.

So Lu has to find other ways to jog his wifes memory. His efforts recall the 2014 documentary Alive Inside, which explored the use of music to awaken the memories of nursing home residents who suffered from dementia.

Zhang paces the film evenly, maintaining a sad, steady tone that looks for meaning in its quiet moments. All three of the leads do an excellent job of emoting the deep emotional pain of their circumstances, especially when they arent expressing it in words.

From a Western perspective, it is hard to place the film in a recognizable time frame. Objects such as a cassette stereo belie a contemporary setting, but Coming Home lives in an impoverished, urban, yet oddly beautiful world that defies the constraints of time.

Its hard to know just what to take from a film like this. Its not a warning to treat your family members well, and it isnt a critique of life in communist China. You could take it as a rally to find cures for debilitating disease, but that doesnt feel right either.

More than anything else, Coming Home is a study of pure, selfless love and how it can be expressed when the usual channels have been painfully withdrawn. For that reason alone, it is a film worth seeing.

Coming Home is rated PG-13 and includes a brief scene of violence and some references to abuse.