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Chinese drama Coming Home is an example of the power of subtitles
Giulietta Masina stars in Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954), the first foreign film to win an Academy Award. - photo by Chris Hicks
Here's a question for all you moviegoers out there: Are you afraid of subtitles? Does the idea of having to read a movie while you watch it seem antithetical to the experience or perhaps just too much work?

When I was growing up in the Los Angeles area during the 1950s and 60s, I went to the occasional foreign film with my parents, but each one was dubbed in English from the Italian La Strada to the Japanese Godzilla, and from the Swedish Smiles of a Summer Night to the French That Man From Rio.

While I enjoyed these films, I found it strangely distracting that the words spoken by the actors (except for Raymond Burr in Godzilla) didnt match their lip movements.

Then I saw my first foreign-language movie with English subtitles, the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It was quite by accident as my parents thought it would be dubbed, and I had to nag them into staying through to the end (my dad wanted to leave after about five minutes).

It was a formative experience and led me to other subtitled films as I began to realize that with English dubbing, a lot of a foreign films real intent can be lost, but with subtitles, it becomes an amazingly immersive experience.

The nuance of the actors line delivery in their native language and the cultural experience told from the filmmakers point of view is distorted when the language is changed. At least, thats how I began to feel when I rewatched subtitled versions of films I had previously seen dubbed.

Federico Fellinis masterpiece La Strada was the dealmaker for me. In the dubbed version, the voice used for the films central star, Giulietta Masina, was more childlike and made the character seem weaker than the subtitled version that used Masinas own vocal interpretation.

When I began reviewing movies in the late 1970s, some foreign movies were still being dubbed, but subtitles were making serious inroads. Sometimes, theaters would alternate both versions to give the audience a choice. (Thats the case right now with the animated Japanese film The Boy and the Beast at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

I reviewed some wonderful foreign-language movies during those years Kagemusha (Japanese), Das Boot (German), Jean de Florette (French), Babettes Feast (Danish), Wings of Desire (German) and many more.

But perhaps my favorites of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s were a string of Chinese period pieces from filmmaker Zhang Yimou and his star Gong Li.

Red Sorghum (1989) marked Zhangs first outing as a director and Gongs debut as an actress, and in fairly quick succession, they followed that film with five more: Ju Dou (1992), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), To Live (1995), The Story of Qiu Ju (1993) and Shanghai Triad (1996).

Then they went their separate ways for nearly for a decade, reuniting for the lavish epic Curse of the Golden Flower, and then again in 2014 for Coming Home, which played in Utah last October and was released this week on Blu-ray and DVD (Sony, PG-13, in Mandarin with subtitles, audio commentary by Zhang with subtitles, featurette from the Toronto Film Festival with Zhang answering audience questions through an English translator).

Curse of the Golden Flower was a departure, but Coming Home is more in line with their earlier collaborations and every bit as rich and engrossing as their best work together. Yet another period piece, this one is about the toll that an oppressive government takes on the individual, set against Chinas Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

College professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is a political prisoner in a labor camp, but he escapes, determined to see his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong), and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Hulwen), and hes oblivious to the tragic circumstances he is setting up for his family. Lu is quickly apprehended when his daughter, for selfish motives, turns him in, which begins the ripple effect that will change their lives forever.

Three years later, the Cultural Revolution ends and Lu is released as rehabilitated, but when he arrives home, he finds that his wife and daughter are estranged, that Feng cant forgive Dandan for the betrayal of her father.

Worse, Feng has a form of amnesia and doesnt recognize her husband, insisting that he is someone else, someone shes afraid of. To win her back, Lu turns to impersonating various people his wife encounters each day, and, with Dandans help, attempts to jog Fengs memory with mementos of the past. He also writes Feng letters, urging her to reconcile with Dandan.

The performances here are completely convincing, with Gong deglamorized in a complex role and Chen dignified yet perplexed as a brokenhearted man struggling to win back his wife but also putting her needs first in the most trying of circumstances.

Zhang Yimou remains an extraordinary filmmaker whose deceptively simple stories are laced with deeper meaning and political subtext, and he does this while teetering on the brink of melodrama and then embracing sentimentality when it is necessary.

This heart-tugging story of loyalty, devotion and unconditional love is guaranteed to move you.

Watch it with someone you love.

And with subtitles.
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