The story is adapted from the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi (simplified Chinese: 陆犯焉识; traditional Chinese: 陸犯焉識) written by Yan Geling. Lu Yanshi had been a professor before being sent to the labour camp (laogai, literally “reform through labor”) during the Cultural Revolution. He escapes from the labour camp in faraway northwest Xining to make his way back to his long-missed wife Feng Wanyu and daughter Dandan. Dandan is a teenage ballerina, and is prevented from playing the lead role due to her father’s outlaw status. So when she stumbles across her father trying to hide in their apartment building to meet her mother, she reveals his presence to the police, and the police are therefore waiting to arrest him when he tries to meet his wife. Lu is captured, his wife is injured in the scuffle, and Dandan is awarded a supporting role in the ballet. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Lu comes home to find his family broken: his wife suffers from amnesia resulting from her injury, and she blames Dandan for having reported her father, and meanwhile Dandan has given up ballet and works in a textile factory.Suffering from shock, following a former official’s sexual harassment, Feng believes that Lu is “Officer Fang” instead of her husband. To reawaken his wife’s memory, Lu pretends to be a total stranger just to be near his wife. Although she becomes friendly with him in his guise as a letter reader or a piano tuner, he cannot get closer to his wife, who is still expecting her husband to return. During his years of imprisonment Lu had written his wife many letters, and he now he writes her some new letters, as if written years earlier, to convince his wife to forgive their daughter for having turned him in. Feng follows this advice and mother and daughter repair their relationship. But the film ends bleakly with Feng still waiting to receive her husband outside the railway station, and Lu standing with her on a snowy day, pretending to be a pedicab driver, still playing any role to be close to her.
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