Coming Home Again is Chinese-American director Wayne Wang’s newest feature, a film that’s divergent in style from his oeuvre over the past three decades. Adapted from acclaimed Korean-American writer Chang-rae Lee’s 1995 personal essay published in The New Yorker, the chamber drama is a collection of vignettes juxtaposing the past and the present, memories and reality. The camera captures life, or the lack of it, in a household where a mother is dying of cancer; the seemingly static surface covers tumultuous emotions in the undercurrents.
Chang-rae (Justin Chon) quits his job in New York City to return to San Francisco to take care of his mother (Jackie Chung) in the last stage of her life. The bulk of Coming Home Again takes place in the course of one day as the son prepares a New Year’s Eve dinner for his mother, father (John Lie) and a sister (Christina July Kim) returning from Korea to be with her family on what will be their last New Year’s Eve together. Coming Home Again opens with a long shot of a man jogging up from the bottom of a street; his heavy breathing is all viewers can hear. When Chang-rae reaches the top, his face slowly appears. A close-up reveals a look of agony. Chang-rae lets out a howl. Soon thereafter, he takes a shower, shaves, makes coffee and takes care of his dying mother.
Reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s cinematic style, a static camera is placed outside the mother’s room to capture the essence of the moment. A medium long shot lets viewers see through a large window into the interior where she lies in bed. Except for her labored breathing, there’s only the sound of traffic outside. Through the glass, Wang shows Chang-rae changing the IV bag on the stand beside her bed. The static camera observes from a distance; the slow pacing and silence gives the audience plenty of room to breathe and think. There is no demand on the viewer. One can choose just to watch, respond with empathy or just dwell on the moment.
The son spends a lot of time in the kitchen preparing for the New Year’s Eve dinner. Cinematographer Richard Wong captures Chang-rae’s meticulous preparation of the various dishes with extreme close-ups, revealing the eagerness of a son’s attempt to follow his mother’s way of cooking to the dot. When slicing the meat away from the beef ribs, the metaphor is explicit in Lee’s original essay, as his mother is careful not to dislodge the sliced flesh from the bones. “The meat needs the bone nearby to borrow its richness.” The bond of family relationship once severed could render one’s life meaningless. Wong’s camera gives visual representation to a conceptual metaphor with stark poignancy, as a sharp knife cleanly slices through red meat until it reaches the bone, keeping the meat intact to make sure flesh and bone remain connected.
Food is the language of love. When there are no words to express innermost feelings, food is the bridge of communication. However, language can sometimes fail, regardless of genuine intentions. At the dressed-up New Year’s Eve dinner table, the camera once again speaks the truth, resting on the mother’s face for a long period of time. She struggles to please by eating a tiny morsel of beef her son has prepared, but cannot swallow and needs to cough out the food, unable to eat despite eagerness of heart. She attempts this motion several times but to no avail. This is where Wang chooses not to offer fairy-tale solutions but to deal a blow of harsh reality. The dinner ends up in clashes, not so much due to the mother’s inability to eat, but rather because of the son’s breakdown from inexpressible, conflicting emotions.
The flashbacks of the family’s younger days reveal conflicts as well. Leo Tolstoy once noted that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but can we classify families so easily by these two simple categories, happy or unhappy? Through the spare dialogues, Wang shows that there has been conflict between the husband and wife, the son and mother, the son and father. Chang-rae was sent to the prestigious Exeter for high school, the parents’ way of paving a path for him to Yale and a bright future. Yet happiness and sadness intermingle. They were happy that their son could get in, but unhappy that he had to leave home when just a young teenager. At her end of life now, the mother regrets her decision, “I should never let you go there.” The son asks, “so why did you?” Matter-of-factly, she replies, “because I didn’t know I was going to die” — a few lines taken directly from the essay, stark and minimal yet effective.
The slow pace of Coming Home Again offers plenty of time for quiet meditation on illness and death, filial duty and expectations, imperfection and impermanence. As the mother chooses to stop her upcoming third chemo treatment, it is the daughter that opposes. As a role reversal, where usually it is the child who wants to get out of parental control and expectations, it is the mother now who needs to convince her daughter to let her go. Wang keeps the audience outside of her room, with the blurry image of mother and daughter arguing over muffled dialogues and silent cries.
Towards the end of Coming Home Again, the son cleans up his mother’s room. The mise-en-scène remains; the person is gone. There are no tears. Wang conveys emotions but not sentimentality. A collaboration between a Chinese-American director and a Korean-American writer, Coming Home Again is an exemplar of minimal styling that shows that what is essentially human surpasses the boundary of what is ethnic and cultural.