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Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home tells of a true nightmare about an unfamiliar loved one. The story, albeit simple, is meant to break your heart instead of speed up its beat, and it’s effective because versions of it play out every day. At the film’s core is amnesia—specifically psychogenic amnesia, which here bears a closer resemblance to Alzheimer’s.

Coming Home, which scripter Zou Jingzhi adapted from a novel, begins with a teenage girl, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), being pulled out of her dance class to meet her mother, Yu (Gong Li), at the principal’s office. He tells them that Lu (Chen Daoming), their respective father and husband, has escaped the prison he’d been sent to 10 years prior during the Cultural Revolution. They’re informed that it’s against party law to see him or withhold information on his whereabouts. Yu looks stricken, but Dandan promptly declares her allegiance to the party.

Lu, having jumped a train during a transfer, is covered with filth and eating out of garbage cans before he attempts to visit his home. He manages to sneak by a guard but not Dandan, though he slips a note under Yu’s door before Dandan can speak to him. Lu’s note asks Yu to meet him at a train station the next morning; when they finally lock eyes from afar, Lu spots the authorities spotting him and yells at Yu to run. In the chaos, Yu is knocked down and hits her head.

The film jumps three years, when the revolution is over and Lu is freed, and you can piece together what happens. Though he’s cleaned up and looks handsome, Yu does not recognize him. Her memory problems have pushed even her beloved daughter away, and now Dandan and Lu must conspire to jog her memory.

Zhang (House of Flying Daggers) could have easily turned this into the human version of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, whose very synopsis will make you weep. A subtle string score stops just short of cloying, bringing a low-key melancholy to every hope-filled reunion in which Lu must pretend to be a stranger. Integral to the tone of this film are the performances, and both Daoming and Li are startling: Daoming’s face must register Lu’s heartache without Yu detecting, except when he flat-out insists that he’s her husband, and the actor does so with a realism that’s piercing.

Li, however, manages to outshine him in a turn that recalls Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance in last year’s Still Alice. Yu’s memory loss and frequent confusion prematurely ages her as she stops, crinkles her brow, or squints her eyes to try to remember what she was doing or whom this person is before her.

The performances are so uncanny, in fact, it seems as if Li studied Alice to prepare, which, due to release dates, is highly improbable.

Once Yu’s memory loss is revealed, there’s not much of an arc left to the story. There’s no big moment, neither of joy nor devastation; it’s just a handicap that Yu and her husband and daughter must learn to live with. Adapting to a different family dynamic once tragedy strikes is, if anything, the film’s message. The irony is that the lesson needed to be delivered softly for it to be unforgettable.

Coming Home opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row.