Film Movement Movie Review: Coming Home Again (2019)

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Nothing nourishes you quite like your mother. Whether it's the time you spend in the womb absorbing the nutrients from her body, her milk when you're a baby, or the meals she makes you with love growing up, you feel sustenance even if the only thing you're faced with is her reassuring smile.

It's this connection that Chang-rae (Justin Chon) wants to forge once again or rather, needs to now that his mother (Jackie Chung) is so close to death. A first-generation Korean American who leaves his job and his life in New York to return home to care for his terminally ill mother in San Francisco, when “Coming Home Again” opens, we watch him begin to prepare his mother's signature kalbi recipe for their New Year's Eve dinner.

Slicing short ribs with care so that the bone begins to fall away but remains connected, in his voice-over narration, Chang-rae explains that the meat needs that link for taste because it borrows its richness from the bone. An obvious metaphor for his relationship with his mother, even though stomach cancer has cruelly taken away her ability to eat, he continues to pay tribute to the recipe that she loved to make, and the one that keeps them connected like flesh and bone.

A quiet, experimental effort based on Chang-Rae Lee's eponymous 1995 “New Yorker” essay, which the award-winning author co-wrote with filmmaker Wayne Wang, “Coming Home Again” is an intensely personal, if not overly successful chronicle of the many stages of grief that come to us in waves as we go from knowing someone is going to die to watching that process play out.

Flooded by natural light, with the film's sparse production design, frames within frames, frequent use of reflective surfaces and elements to signify emptiness, and wide, static shots that go on longer than most contemporary fare, director Wayne Wang pays tribute to the intimate chamber dramas of Yasujir┼Ź Ozu, Chantal Akerman, and others who've made this genre their bread and butter. 

A filmmaker with a significant background helming successful studio ventures like “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan” in the '90s and early '00s, in 1995, Wang crafted one of my all-time favorite films in “Smoke,” which, along with its freewheeling follow-up “Blue in the Face,” were made in collaboration with the iconoclastic author Paul Auster. 

No stranger to working with acclaimed creators on personal projects, “Coming Home Again,” finds him back in “Smoke” like terrain once again. An opus that celebrated storytelling and human connection, which is what “Coming Home Again” sets out to do too, although Wang has said he prefers independent filmmaking because it allows him to breathe in ways that stressful studio projects do not, this film pales in comparison to “Smoke.” 

Confusingly edited to the point that I had absolutely no idea that a bulk of the film took place over the course of one day until I discovered so in my research, “Coming Home Again” is filled with conversations and flashbacks that weave in and out of the main narrative in ways that feel more random than purposeful.

Unable to shed its roots as a personal essay brought awkwardly to the screen, “Coming Home Again,” plays like a short film stretched past its breaking point to reach the eighty-six-minute length of a feature. Treating time and memory like a state of mind in flashbacks, this practice extends to the experience overall, making “Coming Home Again” feel nearly twice as long.

Employing a few bold techniques that we usually attribute to the theater, in the film's flashback scenes, we quickly realize that Chon appears to be roughly the same age as Chung, which says something about the way that time moves both forward and backward concurrently as well as the duo's complex dynamic. This intriguing casting decision also illustrates the number of roles a family member can play in our lives. In several poignant flashbacks, Chung feels more like Chon's sister than his mother, especially when contrasted with the actress portraying his sister whose maternal energy is evident as the two argue about whether it's time to give in to their mother's wish to let her, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Overly reliant on the performance of Chon as Chang-rae, which is at its strongest when the actor has something major to fight against, such as when he goes head-to-head with Christians who've come to pray but offer no answers, “Coming Home Again” shortchanges the rest of its cast to its overall detriment.

Ending the film the same way that Chang-rae Lee did his original essay, which served the print version infinitely better than Wang's film, while our minds keep absorbing and digesting the rhythms of the words of the piece as written, onscreen the sudden final sequence plays as though the film's real conclusion had been left on the cutting room floor. 

Filming many scenes from afar, there's one particularly moving sequence, which finds cinematographer Richard Wong's camera stationed in the base of the kitchen where the New Year's Eve dinner Chang-rae has been preparing awaits offscreen. Using two frames within the frame beautifully, in this affecting mise-en-scene, we sense both the nourishment offered by Chang-rae Lee's mother back when she used the kitchen religiously as well as its absence now that the table in the foreground is empty and she's stuck in the bed located in the background.

Frustratingly, the sequence sums up not only the meaning of the film in one immaculate, painterly shot but also highlights what is missing from the work overall. Feeling less like a film than a collection of occasionally clever frames, performances, and scenes in search of a connective thread, in the end, “Coming Home Again” needs the tender richness of a true narrative the way that Chang-rae needs his mother, his mother needs Chang-rae, and kalbi needs the bone.

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