I’ve been woefully out of the loop on Yimou, the last film I saw by him was the quite superb action flick, Hero. This film is more in the vein of his most famous film, which I have also seen, 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern. In this quiet drama, Lu returns to his home after years spent in a prison camp. But he finds that his wife Feng has been afflicted with a degenerative brain disease; she doesn’t remember him. From this wrenching set-up, Yimou wrings a lot of really powerful emotional drama. The performances are of central importance. Gong Li, almost twenty-five years on from her radiant turn as the young wife in Raise the Red Lantern, is beautiful and striking as the sick Feng, while Chen Daoming is wonderful as a frustrated, heart-broken Lu. Zhang Huiwen is also very good as the daughter of the family. The film seems to accurately capture the ebb & flow of these kinds of illnesses; Lu will be transfigured by hope after Feng is mostly lucid and even comes close to remembering him on one day, but on the next, she may be in another world completely, her unfocused eyes lost and foggy, barely able to comprehend Lu’s presence in the room, much less remember him. This makes the movie achieve moments of real power in some scenes; there’s a breathtaking scene where Lu plays a song on the piano and we see total cognizance almost within Feng’s reach, only to slip away again. But this does make the film unfortunately repetitive and at over two hours, it’s a film that plays its hand early and doesn’t have much more to say as it goes on. The production design is, I should point out, nothing short of brilliant, capturing the muddy, grimy slum life of these characters with such immediacy that it seems like you’re there. But then there’s that troubling ending, which seems out of step with the strong focus on human emotions of the bulk of the film. Whatever else this film is about, it is about making you empathize with these characters, until the ending of the film, which pulls a painful trick by subverting that empathy into a mocking snicker at you. The film makes you care and then mocks you for it, I feel, and I found myself really disliking the ending. There’s something Yimou is getting at about fatalism and futility, I suppose, and you have to respect the vision of the man, but this kind of fatalism works much better in Raise the Red Lantern. In this film, it’s jarringly out of place and feels uncharitable to the characters and to the audience. Far better to have been more ambiguous than to nail down the characters into the hard and fast fate we see. But anyway, it’s repetitive, too long and features an annoying ending. But the visuals are striking and the performances beautiful. Your own values will determine, even more than usual, I think, whether you think this film is worth it. For me, not so much. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – emotional and gorgeously acted tale of mental illness and abiding love from auteur Yimou is unfortunately drawn out and repetitive and marred by an insulting ending. 2 ½ stars.