'Coming Home Again': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A mother-son bond so delicately personal, it’s hard to enter.

A Korean American man leaves his job to care for his dying mother, who expressed her love through her cooking, in Wayne Wang’s film based on an essay by novelist Chang-rae Lee.

An autobiographical essay by Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee, published in the New Yorker back in 1995, is the spark for Wayne Wang’s highly personal mother-son drama Coming Home Again. Lee is credited as co-screenwriter of the film, which describes the way a young writer named Chang-rae drops his day job and girlfriend in New York to take care of his mother, who is slowly dying of stomach cancer. Shot in a light-filled San Francisco apartment, it’s a far cry from dreary or depressing, but it also doesn’t offer any easy way to enter its emotional territory. Viewers who have gone through the experience of taking care of an ailing parent or relative may identify more fully with the slow-moving story.

A bigger question is whether such an inner-directed essay exploring the intimate psychology of the mother-son bond contains enough narrative to fill a feature film, especially in this case where the action is claustrophobically set almost entirely in a single location, like a stage play. Similar to another film that bowed in Toronto this year, The Friend, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and based on an award-winning autobiographical Esquire article (coincidentally about a woman dying of cancer), it struggles to find cinematic ways to communicate the thoughts and feelings that are its original stuff.

Wang, of course, is a veteran with a wide variety of films under his belt, from Maid in Manhattan to The Joy Luck Club, and he has dealt sensitively with the Asian American experience. Here, the backstory of protag Chang-rae (Justin Chon) is that he was accepted at Exeter and moved up the status ladder, which meant moving away from his parents and losing the traditional close ties of Korean families. His homecoming is an attempt to get back some of what he has lost, before it's too late to show his mother how much he loves her. When we watch him changing Mom’s IV bottle or anxiously following her to the bathroom, it’s hard not to read guilt on his face.

And he cooks for her.

Food is equated with feelings and memories of the past for Chang-rae. He learned how to cook Korean dishes at her knee, by watching her prepare the special cuts of meat and fish with all their spices and trimmings. Entire scenes document his prowess at preparing food the way she once did. But the terrible irony is that the stomach cancer makes it impossible for her to eat or even swallow.

Only a handful of characters add their feelings to this mother-son duet. Chang-rae’s father (John Lie) makes himself so scarce that it comes as a surprise he lives in the apartment. He’s a college professor and he may have had an affair behind his wife’s back. He shows his insensitivity by railing against the “sappy old love songs” his wife listens to, while he talks about his paper on “the changing rhetoric of romantic love.” These are faint clues to a long and unhappy marriage.

Also in denial over Mom’s illness is Chang-rae’s career-woman sister Jiyoung (Christina July Kim), whose last-minute arrival with her husband upsets the family ecology for a spell.

In the master scene that comes late in the film, Chang-rae fixes a magnificent dinner for New Year’s Eve, using all his mother’s recipes. The loving care he puts into slicing the short ribs and marinating the shrimp is all for her. Like a child who won’t accept reality, he refuses to accept her illness on its most basic level — that she can no longer taste the food of his love. It’s a frustrating, embarrassing evening for all concerned and so delicately acted by Chon and Jackie Chung, who luminously plays the mother, that it hits a note of aching sorrow and grief more effective than any show of pathos.

The film has an airy look to it thanks to cinematographer Richard Wong’s diffused lighting through a multitude of windows. There is even a wall-size window between the kitchen and the mother’s sick room, which allows two different scenes to be visible at once, and suggests the intimate bond that Chang-rae struggles to keep alive between food and love.

Production company: Center for Asian American Media
Cast: Justin Chon, Jackie Chung, Christina July Kim, John Lie
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenwriters: Wayne Wang, Chang-rae Lee, based on Lee’s essay
Producer: Donald Young
Executive producers: Stephen Gong, Eunei Lee, Heidi Levitt, Jean Noh
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production designers: Minseo Kang, Elyse Wang
Editors: Deirdre Slevin, Ashley Pagan
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
World sales: Asian Shadows (ICM Partners in U.S.)

86 minutes