Sometimes there are tender tears.
On my flight across America a few days ago, I watched the film, “Coming Home,” born of the genius of Zhang Yimou, the celebrated director whose work over the last generation has changed the nature of Chinese cinema. One more time he has told a tale about being human amidst the ruins of the cultural revolution, allowing the world windows into what it meant to live in and through those years of heartache and wound.
The story of a family stretched taut across the years of modern China, the film begins as the cultural revolution is losing its way, still oppressing and yet gasping, unable to sustain its terror. A mother and her daughter have suffered deeply because of the imprisonment of their husband and father, a professor who 10 years earlier was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and like thousands upon thousands was wrongly sent to a labor camp to be “reeducated.” When he is finally released, he comes home, eager to see the ones he most loves, only to find that his wife— played by Gong Li, Yimou’s favorite actress —cannot remember him.
Traumatized by her years of loneliness, something has happened to her memory, and tragically, she does not recognize her husband. Try as he does, with gentleness and persistence over days which becomes years, her mind cannot be awakened; something has been broken, and in this life will not be healed.
What we see through the lens-of-the-heart that is Zhang Yimou is the gift of “a long-loved love,” as Madeleine L’Engle has poetically put it. Deeply-wrought, this is the love that everyone longs for— we yearn to be known, and still be loved, even and especially in our frailty.
Reflecting on the film, I remembered a visit to China several years ago where I was asked to give a lecture at the Beijing Film Academy, the school where Yimou studied. “Good Stories, Good Societies” I called it, speaking to an auditorium full of students and faculty, with a translator beside me who took my words and made them his.
Arguing that there is an integral connection between “good stories” and “good societies,” that we can never be the one without the other, I drew on the American novelist Walker Percy whose deep wisdom has shaped my life, “Bad books lie— they lie most about the human condition” and the Czech playwright-become-president Vaclav Havel whose vision has formed mine, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” And then I talked about China’s best filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, offering several of his best movies as windows into my thesis, doing my best to help them see that bad films always lie— they lie most about the human condition. In contrast, the best films are ones which imaginatively set forth a responsibility born of love as the very heart of our humanity.
There were hundreds of serious, gifted students, and when I finished they asked honest questions wanting honest answers. As one young woman put it, with yearning, “How can we know the truth of the human condition?” That began most of an hour of questions, each one probing the most important things— and of course, I loved them, longing to spend days with them, which wasn’t possible.
Yes, sometimes there are tender tears. Everyone everywhere understands this, because there are moments along the way of life where we weep; we cannot not. Pilgrims in the ruins we are, each one of us, going further up and further in to the brokenness of life, we more fully face the wounds of the world, and most tenderly of all, our own wounds— always psychologically complex, sometimes they are born of political misery too, which only adds layers to the complexity.
Most of us won’t have concentration camps to change the course of our lives, though we will know the sorrows of the world in ways that are differently severe. To know the world, and still love the world, is the most difficult of all vocations— and yet it is what it means to be human, fully and truly human. But to choose full humanity will cost us, which is why, sometimes, there are tender tears.