One of the many beauties of the cinema is its storytelling flexibility.  The screen not only takes its stories from the imaginations of screenwriters, but it also recycles stories that were first created by playwrights for the theatre, researched by historians, reported by journalists, or most frequently, written by the authors of literature.

Stories created for the page demand a special talent for retelling in film.  And as COMING HOME once again demonstrates, Zhang Yimou is one of the world’s most brilliant conveyers of prose to the screen.  In fact, with one or two exceptions, the stories in this master’s finest films have almost always been adapted from novels:

RED SORGHUM (1987)

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991)

THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992)

TO LIVE (1994)

SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995)

KEEP COOL (1997)

THE ROAD HOME (1999)

HAPPY TIMES (2000)

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006)

UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE (2010)

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011)

COMING HOME (2014)

The critical problem of adapting novels to the screen is this:  The great power and beauty of the novel is the dramatization of inner conflicts, conscious and subconscious: whereas, the great power and beauty of the cinema is the dramatization of outer conflicts, social and physical.  The expressivity of page and screen are at the opposite ends of human experience.

On page, in either first, second, or third person, a novelist can directly invade a character and use literary language to describe and imitate the profound flow of thoughts and emotions in the depths of the mind and soul.  But the camera cannot photograph thought; the unseen life within a human being can only be implied from images of gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice, augmented and nuanced by images within the setting, their lighting and colors.

In other words, literary adaptations demand superb acting to bring subtext to life within the character, and then superb directing to house these performances within expressive frames.

In COMING HOME, Zhang Yimou placed the characters played by Gong Li and Chen Daoming in delicate, quiet compositions of naturalistic rooms, hallways and streets.  Then he wrapped their faces in subtle, sensitive light.

Trusting to Zhang’s vision, these two magnificent actors brought their characters’ complex psychologies and inner turmoil to life.

This combination of implied inner action and expressive imagery gave the COMING HOME film audience what Geling Yan’s novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi, gave its readers: the power to see with seemingly supernatural vision through the surface behaviors of the characters Lu and Yu to the wordless passions, confusions, and undying love within them.

Robert McKee - Oct 30, 2014