Wayne Wang’s Coming Home Again is a heartfelt story of a first generation Korean-American grieving as he takes care of his mother as she dies of cancer. The film is now screening in virtual cinemas in the US, and tickets can be purchased here.
Food is the language of love and care in Wayne Wang’s Coming Home Again. Change-rae (Justin Chon), a first generation Korean-American, leaves his Wall Street job to return home to San Francisco to care for his mother (Jackie Chung), who is dying of cancer. Set mostly over the course of New Year’s Eve, the film follows Chang-rae as he carefully and meticulously prepares an impressive traditional Korean New Year’s Eve dinner, using his mother’s recipes. In flashbacks, we see his mother teaching him to cook, and the memories of her warmth and affection that he associates with food.
Based on an autobiographical story in The New Yorker by Chang-rae Lee, Coming Home Again is a quiet, slow burn of a film; I often wondered whether the source material was too sparse to fill a feature runtime. But the more time you spend inside the gorgeous but white and barren Nob Hill home of Chang-rae’s parents, the more you feel the distance between everyone in the family, and the burden of expectations. There’s something to be said for watching just how much time, care, and effort Chang-rae puts into cooking a dinner for his mother, to show her his love, even when she’s past the point of being able to eat it — her stage four stomach cancer has meant she hasn’t eaten for weeks.
The emptiness of the walls, which other affluent families would have filled with art and family photos, hints at the disconnect between the family members. Was this so-called home ever really a home for any of them? We learn that Chang-rae spent much of his childhood away from here, as he was sent off to Exeter, a prestigious boarding school. Meanwhile, his sister (Christina July Kim), who arrives like a storm with strong opinions about her mother’s treatment, we learn, hasn’t even been home to visit in 15 years. Throughout, you sense the family that could have been that wasn’t, and Chang-rae’s decision to drop his job and girlfriend for his mother seems very much in pursuit of those ‘what-if’s, the chance to get to know his mother in a way that was denied him as a child.
Wang’s focus on the house that Chang-rae and his sister left behind as soon as they could, and that has entrapped his mother, is almost gothic, except that everything about is pale: white walls, white light, pastel-coloured curtains. The house is Chang-rae’s mother’s domain, though she never got to make it truly her own with decorations. We sense that the claustrophobia of the constantly closed curtains is indicative of most of her life experience. Sometimes, though, this can be overwrought, like the way Wang returns to the crumbling paint — the imperfections on the surface of a beautiful home — that Chang-rae tries and fails to fully fix.
The film’s most heartbreaking scene takes place at dinner on New Year’s Eve, where the family has gathered, dressed to the nines, to celebrate. Chang-rae’s mother is unable to eat the food, which causes him to throw a temper tantrum, passive aggressively suggesting that she’s faking her approval of his cooking. The scene plays out in medium shots, first on Chang-rae’s mother, who doesn’t know how to show how much she appreciates her son’s labours even if she can’t enjoy them herself, and then on Chang-rae. Chang-rae’s father and sister are both at the table but they aren’t seen, physically boxed out of the lives of mother and son.
It reminded me of Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, which used similar techniques — including showing each member of a family alone in different parts of the house — to show the emotional distance between them. Indeed, I found myself thinking about both No Crying at the Dinner Table and Mina Shum’s Meditation Park a lot during Coming Home Again, as all three films deal with familial distance, the difficulty of the immigration experience for immigrant mothers, and what that means for their relationship to their children.
Both Chinese-Canadian immigrant Maria in Meditation Park and Chang-rae’s mom feel displaced in a country where they aren’t comfortable in the language; they’ve also both spent their lives caring for an indifferent husband who may be cheating on them. Meditation Park is a joyful film because Maria has the chance to find herself and separate from her husband’s emotional needs; Chang-rae’s mother’s illness denies her that opportunity. Whereas Meditation Park and No Crying at the Dinner Table offered the possibility for intergenerational healing, the beginning of the story rather than the end, Coming Home Again deals with the murkier ground of what happens if you don’t get a second chance.
And so Coming Home Again leaves us with an unresolved ending, even as we learn more about the often unspoken bond between mother and son, forged somewhat in retaliation against the father. The empty spaces in Coming Home Again are purposeful, but I longed for the more complex worlds of Meditation Park and No Crying at the Dinner Table, where the characters get the opportunity to come into themselves, and we get to know them, too. Too often, Wang keeps us at the same remove from his characters as they feel from each other.