Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 1; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Zhang Yimou, possibly the best known Chinese filmmaker in America (To Live; Not One Less; Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles; and House of Flying Daggers are just a few of his films), directs this adaptation of the novel by Chinese-American Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. It is a love story, but unlike most movie love stories, its protagonists are not young but middle-aged. During the 70s when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is arrested and sent away for “re-education.”
His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), a middle school teacher, raises their daughter Dan Dan by herself, receiving no word from her husband for years. During this time Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) becomes a ballet student with her heart set on playing the lead of the propaganda ballet The Red Detachment of Women soon to be produced.
However, because her father is “an enemy of the state” she is passed over for a less talented student. She is hurt, her resentment of her absent father growing ever stronger. He escapes and during one rainy night sneaks into their rund-down tenement building. No one answers the door, so he leaves a note for his wife asking her to meet him the next day at the train station. His wife is inside, but she walks slowly, hesitantly across the kitchen floor, the stern warnings of the police against any contact with her husband no doubt the cause.
Dan Dan spots him and betrays him to the police who have posted a watcher outside their tenament. The next day Lu hides beneath the stairs of a platform at the train station while he anxiously keeps a lookout for his wife. When after a long period of scanning the crowds for a glimpse of her, he emerges from his hiding place and starts shouting her name. Above him among the throng she hears him, but so do the police. She yells for him to run, but they seize him, keeping the two apart. During her frantic struggles she is shoved to the ground, injuring her head.
Years later Lu is let out of prison, eagerly hastening to reunite with Feng. He sees Dan Dan first, no longer a ballet student but now living in a factory dormitory. Remorseful over her betrayal, the girl lives apart from her mother. She is on a short break, and asks to see him later, that there is something important he should know. Lu does not wait to find out, but goes to find his wife. To has amazement and sorrow she does not recognize him. She lives aided by neighbors, and on a certain date of each month goes to the train station expecting her husband’s arrival from prison.
Lu tries various means of reviving her memory, showing her an old photograph of the two of them, playing a song from the old days on the piano, and reading the stack of letters that he had written in prison but had been unable to send to her. At times she not only does not recognize him as her husband but gets him mixed up with Mr. Fang, the Party official involved in his arrest and conviction. She orders him out of her home. Lu sorrowfully complies.
During this period Lu lives just across the street from his wife in a storage room only half-transformed into living quarters. Dan Dan helps him all she can, her self-centeredness having melted away. When Lu finds out why his wife is so obsessed by the memory of Mr. Fang, he almost does something that would have sent him back to prison, but an ironic twist saves him.
The years pass, and the two help the increasingly frail Feng perform what has become a ritual—going with her to the gate of the train station where they hold up signs welcoming the husband home. The devotion of all three is impressive: Feng to the husband of the past whom she cannot recognize in the present, and for whom she made a great sacrifice; Lu to the wife he hopes to regain in the future, finally aware of his identity; and Dan Dan devoted to them both, painfully aware of and regretting the terrible thing she did that has brought on their present status.
Of the three Dan Dan changes the most, her journey from a self-centeredness that takes no heed of the needs of others to a concern for her parents welfare that will impede any chance for her own advancement in life—at least as long as they are alive. From ballet stage to factory floor, quite a downward turn career-wise. And yet, eyewitness to the patience and love of her father and mother, Dan Dan’s transformation into an other-concerned human being prevents this poignant story from being a tragedy. The ending is so poignant that you are warned to have a tissue on hand. In regard to love and devotion it might not be exaggerating too much to say that this is a love story for the older generation as is Romeo and Juliet for the young generation.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. issue of VP.