Coming Home/ 归来/ Guīlái – 2014 Chinese Film

BY RUBY CHINGU

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Ouh, yours truly have been absent from the world of blogging for oh-so-long. Things have been changing so much and so fast, at times I feel like I can’t breathe. BUT hopefully my blogging craze has finally returned. My duties as an amateur film reviewer shall continue!! (dear God, please don’t let me be lazy!)

After my three months absence, what better way to start my review with a film by my most favourite director of all time, Mr Zhang Yi Mou? I know – there is no better way. 

Coming Home is a film that reminds us why Mr Zhang is a force to be reckoned with. Truth to be told, I have been experiencing difficulties to enjoy Mr Zhang’s post-2000 films in comparison to his pre-2000 films which I have always worshipped such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. However, Coming Home reminded me of the rawness and endurance of human emotions, much like his previous work. 

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Coming Home is a simple tale of a family whose life had changed dramatically due to the Cultural Revolution. There are three main characters in the film – Lu the father, Yu the mother and Dandan the daughter. The film began with Lu, who had been imprisoned by the government for more than ten years for his rightist political leanings, escaping from prison. His wife, Yu was a school teacher who had been taking care of their daughter on her own. Upon receiving contact from her husband, she was exhilerated, desperately yearning for a reunion with her long-awaited beloved. 

However, their daughter, Dandan hated her father. Due to the bitterness of being a political prisoner’s daughter, she reported the reunion to the authorities in hope to receive the main role in a ballet performance in the national dance academy. Having separated her parents, she did not receive the main role as promised by the officer, cast away by her mother who was afflicted with an amnesia-like mental illness a few years later and gave up dancing to work in a textile factory. 

Simply put, Dandan was struck with guilt for tearing the family apart. 

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After a few years, Lu returned home. However, Yu failed to recognize him due to her illness. Despite that, Lu did not give up. For years, he stayed close to Yu, becoming her neighbour, driver, letter reader and even a piano tuner for the sole purpose of taking care of his wife. The touching part of the film was that Yu, despite not realizing that her husband had been in front of her all along, would wait for him on the 5th of each month at the railway station. They stayed like that for many years – together as a family – despite Yu’s non-awareness of the people she loved had been around her all along.

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Shit, the film is so sad… *wiping away my tears* 

That is the specialty of Chinese films. They start off sad. Then, they get sadder. And sadder. Without any moments of happiness and humour. Life is challenging. Life is difficult. Some people never get what they deserved. Deal with it and keep marching on. 

The film displays how policies and action by a bigger foce ie the authorities affects the lives of its people, especially family based on the film’s context. Loneliness and self-reliant led to the conditions of a parent raising the children on his or her own as their partners had been taken away by the government for the purpose of ‘rehabilitation’. Children, who barely knew their imprisoned parent, would grow up to be complicated individuals as they had to bear the labels of ‘criminal’s children’. 

Simply put, families were torn apart and forced to be made incomplete. 

The main question is – how would they find themselves back together? How would they mend all the lost times? 

The father was relentless in his devoted love for his wife. He stayed with her despite his wife not knowing him anymore. He became the father his daughter finally needed. The daughter asked for forgiveness and moved on. With each other’s support, they cared for Yu the mother. 

Chen Daoming (Lu the father) and Gong Li (Yu the mother) were amazing in their performances. Completely in character and superbly realistic, I shall not drag the review with praises for them. Like… c’mon, we know they can act! The daughter, played by a newcomer Zhang Huiwen, was great, too.

I hope there will be more films like this in the future – realistic, poignant, simple and heartrending. At times, we do need films to entertain us. However, at times, I would like to lie down on my bed and let films teach me a thing or two about life…

The Road Home/我的父亲母亲/Wǒ de Fùqin Mǔqin – 2000 Chinese Film Review

by Ruby Gege, who is officially addicted to Zhang Yimou’s films

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I have to say, amongst Mr Zhang’s many works, The Road Home, which I watched not more than three days ago, is my favourite. His style, which weaves the elements of misery, realism and hope so beautifully, speaks to me as an audience. Each of his films seems to have a life of its own. Watching the stories unravel is akin to getting to know a new person in your life. It is not just a film; it is an experience. (I think I sound over-dramatic but who cares?)

The Road Home is a welcoming shift of mood, I have to say, in a string of Mr Zhang’s films that I watched. Most of them always dealt with the bitterness of life and human survival. However, The Road Home, though essentially maintaining those characteristics, is special as it presents its love story in the most hopeful and inspiring manner. And for a brief 30 minutes of my life, I believed in love. Ah, what a sweet moment it was!

Yusheng with the older Zhao Di
Yusheng with the older Zhao Di

The story begins with Luo Yusheng, a city man who returned to his hometown in frosty rural China to arrange for his father’s funeral. He went to see his mother, who insisted that his father’s body be carried from the morgue to the village by foot, a demand other villagers found to be quite demanding as it was winter and not many young people were strong enough to help carry the casket. However, his mother was adamant. The story, then, shifts to the past, decades ago, telling the love story of his parents.

the younger Zhao Di
the younger Zhao Di

His mother, Zhao Di was a girl not more than 18 years old and the most beautiful girl in the village. She spent most of her time taking care of her almost-blind mother. When the village received a new teacher, Luo Changyu, a young active 20 years old man, Zhao Di was instantly attracted to him. Thus, she took several efforts to catch his attention. She would cook her best dishes for the villagers to lunch, potluck-style, for three days in hope of him picking her dishes (which he did not). She made a red cloth requested from the villagers and delivered them to the school in hope of seeing him (but she did not get to). She purposively fetched water from a well near the school in order to catch a glimpse of him, when there was actually a nearer well by her house. Most amazingly, she would wait for him, hiding behind the hills as he walked his students back to their homes, in order to meet him ‘coincidentally’ so that they could smile at each other. They never really talked, mind you. Most of their courtship developed through mutual intrigued glances and smiles. At times, the words they spoke to each other did not exceed five. Yet, it was obvious that they were attracted to each other. 

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Zhao Di and her beloved, the teacher

I love how hopeful, confident and hardworking Zhao Di was as a young girl pursuing the man of her dreams. She really put in the efforts yet never forced him to like her. She would silently stare from afar, hoping for him to feel the same. Thank goodness he did, though. There was this very staunch sincerity in her I find so endearing.

Their love story was cut short when the teacher was summoned back to the city. That day, Zhao Di made him mushroom dumplings, knowing that it was his favourite food. As he was forced to break his promise to visit her house that afternoon, Zhao Di grabbed the bowl of dumplings with her and chase the horse carriage that was taking her beloved back to the city. I’m not sure how many miles she ran, but she ran hard. She ran and she ran, the dumplings in her hand, wanting so desperately for him to taste them. She fell, the carriage left and the bowl was shattered to pieces.

What a heartbreaking scene! *cries*

Zhao Di waited for him to return, as he promised to come back by 27th of a certain month. By this time, her heart was already with the teacher and she lived through her daily lives in emptiness. She improved the conditions of the village school, changing the paper on the window, cleaning the classrom and sat there for a long time, missing him. On the promised date, Zhao Di waited for the teacher to come home in the freezing winter by the street side, her heart leaping at every carriage that passed by the village.

Zhao Di waiting for her beloved amidst the freezing winder
Zhao Di waiting for her beloved amidst the freezing winder

He did not return. Zhao Di ended up falling ill for three days. Upon waking up, she realized that the teacher had returned to her upon receiving news of her condition. The teacher had to leave to the city the next day to complete his punishment and they were separated again for two years. The teacher came back again to serve the village and never left Zhao Di’s side until the day he passed away.

The story then returned to its present time. The love story explained the older Zhao Di’s stubbornness in insisting her late husband’s casket to be carried home. She did not want her late husband to forget the road home, which had been so symbolic of their love as the younger Zhao Di waited for him devotedly, never giving up on him.

*cries, again. Oh, this is so touching!*

During the day of the ceremony, it turned out that more than 100 people came to help the mother and son to carry the casket. They were Zhao Di’s late husband’s former students, who considered it an honour to be able to participate in the ceremony.

I have to say… The Road Home is a far more pleasant memory that I expected it to be. First, I am used to seeing Gong Li in a Zhang Yimou film. Thus, when their relationship ended and Mr Zhang found a new muse in Zhang Ziyi (who played Zhao Di), I was greatly sceptical. I was like… “hmm, can she be at last half as good as Gong Li? Because really, Gong Li is AMAZING!” How wrong I was. She carried the film like a top-notch actress (she was barely 20 while filming this, her debut film). Her character, Zhao Di is the heart and soul of The Road Home. Whilst watching her journey, we cannot but to be absorbed in her giddiness upon seeing her beloved, her happiness and hope, her fears and worries of her love unreturned and her steadfast belief of her beloved’s return to the point that we wish the teacher would come back to her as much as she did.  

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I should have watched it a bit earlier to appreciate the innocence of love portrayed by the characters, which is quite rare amongst the collection of Chinese films I have. It has managed to put a smile on my face each time I think of it, making me think – if I can encounter a love like that, how nice it would be. 

Coming back to real life, of course I won’t! Urbanization is a cruel thing. It takes away the innocence in people. And limit your chances to ever have this kind of experience, people.  

To Live / 活着/ Huózhe (1994 Film) – Of Family, Survival, Mao Zedong’s Communism and China

BY RUBY GEGE

*I shall not rate this film, because I am not worthy to. Watch it and save your soul!! Seriously, you have to watch this film.*

I discovered one thing today while attempting to learn Mandarin through films – NEVER EVER CHOOSE A SERIOUS POLITICAL FILM FOR LANGUAGE-LEARNING!

It never works. Instead of learning about the pronunciation, you got yourself a two hours political course on the subject of the film instead, and in this particular film I’m reviewing, the modern history of China.

linkI am now overwhelmed with the general feeling of over-exposure and complications (in a good way) upon watching To Live (活着), a 1994 film by Zhang Yimou, who ranks amongst China’s best directors. Zhang’s earlier works (pre-2000) are nothing short of amazing. Watch another of his film called Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) and you’ll understand why. Unlike the more ‘cultural’ Raise the Red Lantern, which dealt with the issue of family, customs, wives and warlord-era China, To Live revolved around the life of a small family during China’s transition to Communism and the aftermath. 

Before watching the film, I have a general understanding about China’s history. Marred by many ups and downs, natural and political disasters, one cannot help but be awed by the massiveness of that society’s resilience. Mao Zedong, the famous and super-influential supreme leader of China from 1940 to 1970s, was a very important element in To Live. Though he was not portrayed as a character, the life of the main characters were mostly affected due to his policies (which some argued to have caused great GREAT difficulties and regressed China into the backward era). His pictures were everywhere, his ideas were imbued into so many books attached to the characters’ lives, called the Red Book, treasured by the young Red Guards who were literally obsessed with him.

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Jiazhen, the wife and Fugui, the husband

Notwithstanding the politics, To Live or Huózhe really is a tale of a family’s survival through turbulent times. We have a father, Fugui, a mother, Jiazhen, a daughter, Fengxia and a son, Youqing. During 1940s, the family was of a relatively wealthy prospect and belonged to the landowners class until Fugui gambled all of what’s left to the point he became homeless. His wife, Jiazhen, had already left him with the children due to his gambling habits. We see the fall of Fugui, a spoilt man-child who had a massive awakening call upon being homeless – he started working to take care of his ailing mother. Knowing that he’s a changed man, Jiazhen returned to him with the kids and they became a family again. From then on, the family learned the hard way to survive the circumstances so severe I cried my balls out throughout the film – forced labour, war, death and more death, death of people, death of culture and death of happiness.

All from the perspective of Fugui, Jiazhen and their children.

Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing
Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing

Three major historical events that altered the family’s life (to the worse, I’d argue) were:

1 – The Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists, led respectively by Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong. FYI, it’s very important to know about the conflict here to understand Chinese history. Our male lead, Fugui, learned how to earn money by starting a shadow puppet troupe but was forcibly conscripted into the Kuomintang army, where millions died during the war. He surrendered  to the Communists, became a prisoner of war and was allowed to return home to his family a few years later. By now, his children had already grown up several years.

It’s interesting to note that Fugui, at first, did not give a damn about whose side he was own. All that he cared was earning money to take care of his family. He did not subscribe to any political ideologies – for both always caused death anyway, Kuomintang or Communist – and wanted only TO LIVE (thus the title of the film).

2 – When The Great Leap Forward (大跃进) happened from 1958 to 1961, Fugui’s family had already adapted themselves to the communist society. They wore simple peasant clothes, as the working class was deemed to be the main class of the society. They completely eradicated any proofs that they once belonged to the upper class and made sure that their loyalty to the communists ideology was visible by putting their ‘working class certificate’ on a frame. Yet, again, it was not because they totally believed in the political ideology – or maybe they did out of habit because they thought there’s no other way to live – but because they wanted to stay out of trouble and lived life peacefully.

The family's original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family’s original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle

The Great Leap Forward was basically a radical social and economic policy started by Mao Zedong aimed to transform Chinese economy from agragrian to a communist economy through rapid economic expansion. During these times, Fugui’s family had to donate all iron they had to the government – supposedly to make weapons to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, which was the Kuomintang’s control.

I find it disturbing how people use words like ‘liberate’ or ‘free’ but the act doesn’t really portray such a thing. Like how China wants to ‘liberate’ Taiwan – and I’m sure when you ask a Taiwanese, they don’t really want to be ‘liberated’? At least not by China. The same thing when USA tried to ‘liberate’ or ‘bring democracy’ to Afghanistan and Iraq and we all know  how that ended. Thanks so much, superpowers who really had nothing important to do than assert their imperialist tendencies.

A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies
A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies

All the kids in school had to devote themselves to hard labour by melting the irons at school. Fugui and Jiazhen’s little son, Youqing was an active mischievous boy who was loved by his parents. Seeing him sleeping after three days of hard work, Jiazhen tried to persuade Fugui into letting Youqing sleep a little more. However, Fugui insisted on waking him up as to maintain the family’s ‘image’ as a good Communist family.

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A picture I found online. The industrialization of China’s economy

Youqing died in an accident later after reaching school as a wall fell on him whilst he was taking a nap. Just a few hours before, his mother affectionately packed him lunch full of dumplings and his father carried him so lovingly to school, telling him if he wants to have a good life, he must work hard and care for his mother and sister.

The family bravely overcame the loss and sadness over losing their only son. Maybe because they did not have the luxury to keep mourning. They needed to move on in order to live.

Note that the Great Leap Forward caused the Great Chinese Famine, which had been said to cause death to over 76 million people. Yup, you read me right – 76 million. That is like… three times the Malaysian population.

3 – The Cultural Revolution (文化大革命) occurred 1966 to 1976 and most consider it a failure nowadays as Mao Zedong’s way to return to power after being pushed aside due to the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward. I have to say Mao Zedong was really smart, though. He had all these massive ideas in his head and turned them into a massive movement which influenced a massive amount of people who were massively obsessed with him. It’s massive in every sense of the massive word.

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Propaganda poster during the Cultural Revolution. Mao was portrayed as the father figure, the leader.

The Cultural Revolution aimed to eradicate the Chinese people who Mao accused of being ‘capitalist’. One cannot talk about the Cultural Revolution without mentioning the Red Guards, a group of youths who responded to Mao’s appeal to somehow ‘save’ the country from capitalism. In reality, the Cultural Revolution was deemed a failure – indeed, it was Mao’s strategy to retain power until he died. Millions of people died (again) and violence were rampant. Anybody who were against communism were arrested and cultural and religious places were ransacked.

The film did not really display the great damage of the Revolution. However, it hinted the way their lives were being affected by it. Fugui, who was an experienced puppeteer, was forced to burn his puppets as they were deemed counter-revolutionary to Mao’s ideas – because supposedly, they represented kings, princes, nobility, all things luxurious and bad for communism.  Fugui did not fight back and let his daughter burnt it and I cannot help but the scene symbolizes how culture, art and heritage are often sacrificed in the name of a ‘greater good’ or a ‘greater idealism’. When, really, the main purpose of destroying cultural arts is to assert dominance and control over the people.

Reminds me of the states in Malaysia (especially Kelantan) and how they ban certain cultural arts that were deemed ‘bad’ in the name of religion. The cultures have existed for hundreds of years. Islam came to Kelantan around the same time. They co-existed harmoniously alongside each other since forever. Now, they’re banning it? Why? How does the arts affect one’s faith? Islamization? Arabization? To be a better Islamic state? But then why now? Why did not the religious clerics made a noise hundreds of years ago? Are we implying that, God forbid, the clerics during the 1400s and 1500s were more broad-minded than the current ones?

Hmmm….

Back to the Cultural Revolution, the family managed to find a good husband for their daughter, Fengxia. Since Fengxia was a deaf and mute, they had to be careful in choosing a husband and preferred him to also have a form of handicap. Most probably to ensure that Fengxia was not placed on a lower level than her husband. The husband, Erxi, was a polite factory worker who also headed the Red Guards in his workplace. Even though he was a cripple and could only walk properly on one foot, he was a highly political youth.

Erxi, like the rest of the Red Guards, were OBSESSED with Mao Zedong. They put his posters everywhere, distributed his Little Red Books. During their first day, Erxi helped his girlfriend’s family fixed the roof of the house and they made a big painting of Mao Zedong together on the wall. It is supposed to be a super romantic sweet scene, which it was, really……. with Mao Zedong’s smiling portrait at the background.

The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren't they sweet? Yes? No?
The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren’t they sweet? Yes? No? Chairman Mao definitely thought so. Can’t you see him smiling there?

Another hmm….

Note that personality cult (worship of a figure) is also practiced in North Korea, an extreme communist country as well. I think this strategy helps a lot in controlling a country. If people worship someone, they won’t speak up against him. No rebellion and they won’t ‘waste’ their time thinking. Place your trust in your leader! Hmmm?

The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution
The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution

Erxi and Fengxia were wedded happily – again with Mao’s picture on the background. The most disturbing scene for me was when the chief led the wedding guests to sing a wedding song to the couple – a happy song with VERY COMMUNIST lyrics:

Nothing compares to the Party’s benevolence,

Chairman Mao is dearer than Father and Mother,

There’s nothing as good as socialism,

No ocean as deep as class feeling,

Maoist Thought is revolution’s treasure trove,

Whoever opposes it, we take as our enemy,

Now can somebody tell me why the hell would someone sing this song in a wedding? A WEDDING?

But then, it was a different time.

Fengxia had a short time of full happiness with her husband. She got pregnant and died after childbirth – the moment of her death was another heartbreaking scene to Fugui and Jiazhen. I was shocked and scared for them – please don’t take their remaining child away! They lost their son, now their daughter was dying, too. The circumstances of Fengxia’s death was also tragic – she bled after giving birth. And during the Cultural Revolution, doctors were sent to hard labour as they were deemed ‘too educatd’ – thus inclined to capitalism. The hospitals were run by inexperienced nurses/students.

Therefore, it can be said that the couple lost their children due to the policies introduced by Mao. It was not direct, but it was related in every way. Their son, Youqing died after melting irons during the Great Leap Forward, Fengxia bled to death and there were no doctors to save her due to the Cultural Revolution.

ALL THEY DID WAS LIVE. AND THEY LIVED.

To Live is essentially a film of human spirits. The strength and perseverance of Fugui and Jiazhen. They did not give up and surrender to hardship and grief. They fell and rose back up again for their family. Even though their lives were often intertwined with sorrow and tragedies, they lived. Their lives were far away from happiness and satisfaction but they lived.

The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson.... Exhausted, tired.
The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson…. Exhausted, tired.

The film, for me, symbolizes the hardships and struggles of people living during that time and that era. All the oppression and suffering they had to endure. But China survived. The society survives. Do we really have to wonder why China is such a huge economic superpower now? Do we really have to wonder why people in China are so diligent, so hardworking, so selfless? Take a glimpse into their history and you’ll know why.

And there goes my two hour political course on the subject. Thank you, Director Zhang Yimou. Now my head feels super heavy.