In a deeply personal essay that was published in The New Yorker in 1995, Chang-rae Lee wrote about the time he spent taking care of his mother while she was dying of stomach cancer. Now, the story has been adapted to film. Directed by indie regular Wayne Wang, Coming Home Again stars Justin Chon as Lee and Jackie Chung as his ailing mother. Taking place over only one day, Chang-rae returns to his home in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve to take care of his mother, who is suffering from stage four stomach cancer. Chang-rae plans to impress his bedridden mother—who cannot get out of bed except to use the bathroom—by having a family dinner and cooking the Korean dishes that she used to cook for him when he was younger.
Wang interlaces scenes of Chang-rae slicing beef or chopping up pears with flashbacks of memories of him and his mother before she was sick. There is a clear association of a unity of family and appreciation of Korean culture with these shots of Chang-rae carefully preparing the New Year’s Meal.
The prologue opens with a voice-over of him thinly cutting pieces of beef, carefully ensuring the meat is still connected to the bone—and the final moments of the film actually connect back to this same scene. This scene could posit that the bone is his mother, someone who raised him and taught him about his distinct culture. The meat is Chang-rae, which is eventually consumed, but for now still connected to the bone.
While conceptually Coming Home Again seems like a film that can rely on emotional substance, its lack of structured plot or mounting tension makes the movie a dull viewing experience. The use of single-take scenes of characters simply talking makes the film feel even more plodding than it already is. It’s difficult to not be distracted because the director and editor leave so much runtime focused on characters doing mostly nothing.
Regardless of the slow nature of the movie, the final 15 minutes pose substantial questions and themes that don’t just tie to the metaphor of meat and bone, but also about what an immigrant family living in the United States looks and acts like. The problem is that Wang likely bored the audience enough in the first hour that the reward of finally beginning to grasp these themes does not really resonate or become satisfactory. It’s a movie that works on paper but not on execution.
There’s even an ill-placed scene of Chang-rae running into an old childhood friend outside of a grocery store. They seem to reminisce about some memories of school but it feels like a forced, pretentious scene of the director making a statement about how detached we can be from where we come from and how hard it is to take care of a loved one who is ill.
Chang-rae just babbles over some childhood stories and tells his friend that his mother has cancer while fighting back tears. It’s difficult for audience members to generate empathy for parts of a character and a scene that seems fabricated to assist the film’s theme rather than the plot.
Also, there’s an absence of authenticity within the way the characters are written and the way the actors perform. For a movie attempting to make a statement about the real world, the characters resort to common film tropes, such as the emotionally distant and stoic father (John Lie) or Chang-rae, the son who is making every possible step to get as close to his culture as he can.
None of the actors make their characters step outside of these fragile shells, leaving them flat instead of complicated. The characters are something audience members have seen before, serving as another reason why the movie seemed so sluggish. In total, Coming Home Again deals with heavy themes but doesn’t really do a great job of sorting them into a fully fleshed out storyline.
Photo courtesy of Outsider Pictures