Coming Home Again (USA, 2019)

Chang-rae Lee is one of the most notable voices in Asian-American literature, a key figure in exploring the identity and evolution of the Asian subculture in the west. So, it is no surprise that the first adaptation of his work to the silver screen, Coming Home Again, is helmed by director Wayne Wang who is himself a prominent figure in the development of Asian-American cinema. Based on an autobiographical essay that Lee published in The New Yorker in 1995, Coming Home Again is a deeply personal story about the relationship of a son and his dying mother. Wang’s adaptation superbly captures the reflective and meditative nature of the source material, delivering a piece that treads carefully between grief, tragedy, and hope.

The plot of the film revolves around young aspiring writer, Chang-rae (Justin Chon), who quits his prestigious Wall Street job to take care of his sick mother (Jackie Chung) in San Francisco. On New Year’s Eve he prepares his and his mother’s favorite meal, trying to follow the recipe as close as he can. The process brings back many memories for Chang-rae. Emotions that were buried deep begin to emerge. It becomes increasingly apparent that food and cooking are the strongest means of connection between Chang-rae and his mother. When the entire family sits around the dinner table, Chang-rae realizes he’s not quite made peace with his mother’s condition.

Coming Home Again has a very powerful premise, one which director Wayne Wang shows great skill in adapting. The contemplative tone of the original essay translates well on the screen as the director’s bold choice to keep the non-linear structure of the source material pays off. Much like an emerging memory, the film bounces back and forth between the present day (New Year’s Eve) and various moments in Chang-rae’s and his mother’s life. These transitions are seamless and often come unannounced. There’s nothing to distinguish the past and the present save for the occasional use of a warmer color palette that contrasts the gray-ish tone of the apartment where most of the film takes place. The sense of claustrophobia is ever-present, giving a perfect visual metaphor for the struggling inner world of the protagonists.

Of course, the actors deserve at least half of the merit for helping the film achieve a proper melancholic atmosphere. The two leads are remarkable as the mother and son duo. Chung and Chon add a lot of dynamism into what is an otherwise a slow and static film, in addition to reinforcing the overall tone and style. For instance, Chang-rae’s melancholic voice in the opening scene of the film clearly forbears the tragedy that will be revealed just a few minutes later. Chung, on the other hand, occupies most of the film’s runtime as a bedridden cancer patient, yet still manages to effortlessly juggle between the subtle emotional states that her role requires. The dialogue has an improvised quality about it that sounds awkward and “off-key” at times, though it helps keep the film grounded in realism.

There are differences between the source material and the film, but they only stand out to those who’ve read Lee’s original essay. The additions in the film include some extra dialogue, along with an extra subplot involving Chang-rae’s father (John Lie) and his potential infidelity. These scenes don’t necessarily add much to the story other than help fill in the essay’s rather stripped-down narrative.

Coming Home Again might not be a film for everyone. It’s a work of slow of cinema that requires at least a second or third watch to resonate with the viewer – but once it does, it is extremely rewarding.