An intimate chamber piece that tightly interlaces remembrances of food and family, Wayne Wang’s quietly sensitive “Coming Home Again” adapts Chang-rae Lee’s award-winning 1995 New Yorker essay, a personal piece on Lee’s caring for his terminally ill mother and cooking her Korean dishes. A filmmaker with a diverse slate that includes the likes of “The Joy Luck Club” and female-centric populist films like “Maid in Manhattan” and “Last Holiday,” Wang operates loosely in the vein of his 1995 film “Smoke” here: incisively observant and attentive to items, mining in objects emotional traces of those who touched them.
But as with his other work, he is also precise in culturally detailing a contemporary San Francisco-based Asian American immigrant family facing a major life crisis. Wang is no stranger to exploring the immigrant experience in America — in films such as “Chan Is Missing,” “The Princess of Nebraska” and “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” he portrayed the different shades of various Chinese Americans with nuance and empathy. He brings the same watchful compassion to the Korean American family at the heart of “Coming Home Again,” grappling with anticipatory grief, with the impending departure of one of their own.
A mostly music-free movie of a few words (save for the superfluous use of voiceover here and there), “Coming Home Again” unfolds almost entirely indoors. Cinematographer Richard Wong’s patient lens navigates the confines of the family’s oddly compartmentalized home with clarity and attention to light, negative space and tidy body placement. But the unusual floor plan, reminiscent of a railroad-style home in parts, often produces cinematic gold. At times, the sorrowful camera can see the deathbed of Mom (Jackie Chung, unnamed otherwise) from unexpected spots of the home, while her son Chang-rae (Justin Chon), recently returned home from New York to spend his time with his mother, lovingly tends to her needs like changing her IV. Struggling to accept the reality of his mom’s situation, Chang-rae finds temporary peace in cooking his mother’s beloved Korean recipes for her, ultimately planning to prepare a New Year’s Eve feast for the whole family — a last elaborate supper together to lift Mom’s spirits up.
The meticulous, tradition-driven nature of Asian cooking, the familial dimension of which was beautifully explored in recent (Chinese American-centric) films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” is the main course of Wang’s film, marinating in process and specificity before it appetizingly starts to sizzle. Through long takes that don’t often break up the action or unfolding conversations, Wang’s camera simply adores Chon as he chops, mixes and pours, while remembering in flashbacks his mother’s healthy years when she was the one with the paring knife. These glimpses back in time are so casually dropped in that they don’t feel like flashbacks — so much that when Mom suggests adding pear into a meat marinade to make it sweeter, we can’t be sure what era the voice belongs to exactly.
Such memories from the past are soundly blended in to the present-time story, thanks to Wang’s good instincts along with his editors Deirdre Slevin and Ashley Pagán. We slowly get to know what made Mom special. She was good at listening, she asked for help a lot, she was wary of using English on the phone and she endured what is hinted to be an affair between her husband (John Lie) and another woman. Contrasting these with present-day scenes, Wang tags along Chang-rae’s trauma, not aided by religion or spirituality. He voices his frustration with God in a number of scenes when he loses his temper during a prayer group arranged at his home. Meanwhile, we meet his opinionated sister (Christina July Kim), who can’t accept her mother’s decision not to continue with chemotherapy.
Needless to say, the food looks fantastic throughout and, thanks to the work of food consultant Corey Lee, promises to be authentic. A small, (sometimes tediously) slow film with limited theatrical prospects but profound things to say about family and grief, “Coming Home Again” feels deeply personal for Wang, who reportedly drew on his own experiences when he helped care for both of his parents in their last days. While this is not exactly a premise with mass appeal, Wang’s movie is still an unassuming exercise, defiantly in contrast to Hollywood’s typically over-sentimental terminal illness fare.