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Is there a relationship with the potential for greater love or fraught with more possibilities for pain than the one we have with our mothers?
The quiet, introspective drama “Coming Home Again,” elegantly adapted by director Wayne Wang and novelist Chang-rae Lee, from Lee’s 1995 essay in the New Yorker, explores the subtleties of that dynamic through the memories of a young adult son who returns to care for his dying mother. As is so often the case, cultural specificity begets a very recognizable universality in this depiction of parents and children, love, death and grief.
For the character of Chang-rae, returning to his Korean American family’s Nob Hill apartment in San Francisco for his first extended stay after studying at Exeter and Yale and working for a year on Wall Street, the visit is dutiful and loving. The film takes place over one day as Chang-Rae carefully prepares a traditional meal for the family’s New Year’s Eve dinner and slips into memories of the past.
Played by actor (“Twilight”) and filmmaker (“Gook,” “Ms. Purple”) Justin Chon, Chang-rae struggles to process the moment. Facing the fact that the woman who gave birth to him, the woman he left behind when he went away to school, is now leaving him, conflicts with his expectations of life. Tightly wound with frustration and misdirected anger, acceptance is difficult for him.
As the mother, Jackie Chung is heartbreaking. Frail and losing a painful battle to stomach cancer, she questions her choices, delicately pressing Chang-rae to examine their relationship. In the flashbacks, she appears vital, anxious, eager to please, as she remains behind at home and her son moves on, becoming more American and more distant.
Eventually, the two are joined by the father (John Lie) and Chang-rae’s sister (Christina July Kim), but this is essentially a two-hander. As mother and son warily engage, family secrets emerge and realizations are had.
There is a mixture of sadness and resentment in the mother’s experience of the inevitable process of letting go. While inescapable, it becomes a question of degrees. When do we let go? How do we let go? In life as in death, we don’t always have a choice.
Wang, who broke through in the 1980s with “Chan Is Missing,” “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” and “Eat a Bowl of Tea” but is more widely known for studio fare such as “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan,” describes “Coming Home Again” as “non-narrative” in structure. And while it eschews traditional storytelling, its poetic, elliptical approach provides an undeniably moving arc in where it takes us.
It was important to Wang, a Chinese American from Hong Kong, to be as authentic as possible with the Korean American Lee’s story, going so far as deploying a culinary consultant, Corey Lee, to coach Chon and Chung in the art of Korean food preparation. For these two characters, food is the bond that connected them even as time kept them apart and continues as their shared language when words fail them.
Though it falters at times in its tone, the film is oddly soothing in its formalism. Long wide shots of the present, hand-held closeups for the past and shots inspired by Japan’s Yasujirô Ozu of objects and uninhabited spaces that draw us in, offering comfort while leaving us vulnerable.
Sometimes when the moment comes to reconcile our feelings, we freeze or fumble the opportunity; other times, when we finally process the emotions and can articulate the thoughts, it is too late to communicate them. “Coming Home Again,” sweetly, sometimes painfully, evokes this experience.