Reviewed by Thyronne Millaud: Wayne Wang’s latest film “Coming Home Again” brings to mind the old adage ‘still waters run deep’. Starring Justin Chon and Jackie Chung and based on a 1995 New Yorker essay written by Chang-Rae Lee, the film is set in a family home in San Fransisco where Chang-Rae has left his successful job in New York to come home and take care of his mother who is in the last stages of stomach cancer.
It’s a quiet film that at first glance seems calm and peaceful on the surface while just below lurk untold depths and currents. The only other film by Wayne Wang that I am familiar with is the Joy Luck Club, which deals with similar themes for a westernized child slowly learning things about a mother of Asian culture through conversation and food.
But where Joy Luck Club was an expansive, sentimental, and almost epic journey, Coming Home Again seems personal and claustrophobic. Almost the entire movie takes place in one location, inside the family home with most of the movie is shot from outside the mother’s room where it almost seems framed inside the other room.
The cast is tiny, apart from Chon and Chung, there are less than half a dozen other actors in the movie, a father/husband, a sister/daughter, a couple of church ladies that come to offer comfort, and a friend that Chang-Rae runs into when he goes out for groceries, who recalls how much he loved Chang-Rae’s mother’s Kalbi. Kalbi is the dish that Chang-Rae is determined to prepare for his mother for New Year’s trying to follow her recipe. That we learn is an unspoken connection between mother and son. When she prepared it for him she prepared it with love. And now it’s his turn to prepare it for her.
Although the conversation barely raises above a whisper or polite conversation there’s so much said and inferred in what is said. It becomes obvious that while this may not be the most loving family, they do love and care for each other as well as feel obligated or duty-bound. Chang-Rae’s mother asked why he never intoned her to his friends at Exeter of his girlfriend who she doesn’t even know is or isn’t Korean. What is compelling is the human experience of two people who realize their time together is coming to an end and although they should know each other so well, really don’t.
Apart from the framing into rooms, another interesting cinematographic device is the use of color. All the action takes place in a couple of days but interspersed with flashbacks of snippets of conversations or events. The action in real-time, as well as the flashbacks, are fairly mundane, everyday episodes, nothing overly sentimental or earth-shattering, small arguments or disagreements, Korean maxims and advice, an occasional tip on how to prepare a recipe. The real-time is presented in a cooler more desaturated palette while the flashbacks are filmed in richer warmer colors. This film isn’t necessarily dark or depressing but rather an exploration of the human spirit.
In the end, I believe this is a film where everyone may relate to something unique that resonates with them. It personally affected me on two levels as, one, I have begun caring for my mother, who, although she is not terminal has experienced a great reduction in self-sufficiency and independence and truly needs care. Secondly, I recently lost my oldest childhood friend to jaw cancer, and once while visiting him in the hospice where he couldn’t speak or eat I remember thinking how cruel is this disease that has stolen from him two things that he loved most fine dining and public speaking.
Early in Coming Home Again, Chang-Rae expresses this very same sentiment about that stomach cancer that his mother suffers from and yet he’s determined to prepare all her favorite recipes for New Year’s.
I hope all you can see this film will cherish what they with loved ones and make peace with them before it’s too late.
Coming Home Again
Director: Wayne Wang
Writers: Wayne Wang & Chang-rae Lee
Country: U.S/South Korea
Language: English and Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 86 min.