Wayne Wang’s “Coming Home Again” unfolds largely over the course of a single day as a young Korean-American man tries to prepare a New Year’s Eve feast using his ailing mother’s recipes. It’s a movie that celebrates the enduring connection that many of us feel between food and family.
The film premieres Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival in a Special Presentation slot.
“Growing up with my mother, cooking was a basic way that we communicated,” said Wang, the veteran filmmaker of “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan,” who directed the low-budget film. “We didn’t have many deep psychological conversations and when we did talk, it was mostly about food. The way she expressed her love for me was to cook and the way that I demonstrated my love for her was to eat until I was stuffed.”
When “The Joy Luck Club” came out in 1993, it was hailed as a watershed moment as one of the first studio movies to feature a predominantly Asian cast. However, change proved slow to come and the decades that followed didn’t lead to an outpouring of Hollywood movies that highlighted Asian or Asian-American performers and filmmakers. With the success of 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and 2019’s “The Farewell,” the situation does appear to be improving, said Wang.
“Very slowly I think people are realizing there’s a market for films about Asian experiences,” said Wang. “That’s a good thing and I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I may be too old to see it happen, but I do think that a big change is coming soon.”
“Coming Home Again” is based on a personal essay by Chang-rae Lee, but the story of a son having to care for a terminally ill parent resonated with Wang. He drew on his own experiences helping to look after his father and mother in their final days as he prepared to tell the story.
“Emotionally, it’s universal,” said Wang. “At some point, all of us have to deal with a parent who is sick or dying.”
Wang also tried to strip away as much of the conversational interplay as possible, preferring to focus the camera on his lead actors, Justin Chon and Jackie Chung, as they perform household tasks, washing produce and marinating beef or changing the IV bag. That approach, Wang says, is what distinguishes indie productions such as “Coming Home Again” from the larger studio films he’s overseen.
“More and more, Hollywood films are so dependent on dialogue,” said Wang. “When you read a script, it’s almost like reading a book. A [director of photography] friend of mine came up to me once and said, ‘It’s almost like shooting a radio show.’ I didn’t want that. I wanted to make a visual film where action reveals character.”
Wang also wanted to underplay the emotion, something he sometimes felt he had failed to do in his previous work.
“I always felt that with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ as great as that film was, there’s a lot characters crying in the movie,” said Wang. “I felt guilty about that. There’s a horrible tragic situation in this movie of a son watching his mother die, but I didn’t want there to be so many tears. It’s the things in the house, the mementos and pictures, that provide the emotions, not the crying.”