There are certain things that remind us of who we are, about our family, heritage, and identity. Food, is one of them. It connects us to the past by creating a sensory pathway for our memories. It pulls us back to specific moments in time when that may have been as eventful as a wedding or birthday party and as mundane as sitting at home eating a bowl of cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons. Though we may not have known it at the time, these dishes created snapshots, becoming indelible markers on our psyche. In Wayne Wang’s latest film Coming Home Again, based on Chang-rae Lee’s personal essay of the same name, food is how Chang-rae (Justin Chon) explores his memories of times spent with his mother, after he returns home to San Francisco to care for her.
For most, slicing into a cut of beef is a simple action, a necessary step in prepping it for cooking, but for Chang-rae it’s more than that. For him, each effortless slice brings to mind his memories of time spent with Mom (Jackie Chung) in the kitchen. As he prepares the kalbi (Korean marinated beef) he hears his mother’s voice advising him to use specific ingredients like Asian pears because the enzymes tenderize the meat and adds a unique flavor. With the camera panning from a close-up of Chang-rae’s hands, we see the large window behind him through which his mother can be seen laying in bed, where she has a clear view of her son in the place that was once her domain.
As a parent, it has always been her honor to care for her family. Though the work was difficult at times, preparing for traditional holidays like Chuseok and New Year’s gave her a way to express her love and occupy her time as a house wife in America. Through Chang-rae’s recollections of their time together we learn that his mother was once on a women’s basketball team and had a super smooth three-point shot. She also had an active social life in Korea, but making the transition to America was difficult. Moving to a country where people didn’t speak her language or understood her culture made her feel isolated.
Being an immigrant is an experience that only others who have made that drastic change can understand. As someone who grew up in America, Chang-rae couldn’t understand her frustration with doing something like communicating with a bank employee , which for him would be a simple conversation. What some may not fully understand is that when leaving the country you’ve called home as an adult, there can be a profound sense of loss and a feeling of incompleteness that never truly goes away. For immigrants, cultural identity becomes even more important in a society where assimilation, rather than integration is desired. Be it through speaking the native dialect/language at home, or making traditional dishes, people use various methods to create a tangible connection to where they came from, and in Mom’s case her ability to do this was gone.
After being away from home for so many years, he now realizes how priceless the time they spent together is. The kitchen was one of the places where Mom taught valuable lessons about life, and he learned of who she was before becoming a wife and mother. He now understood that while standing beside her as she shared prepared kimchi and told funny stories of her childhood in South Korea, his mother was imparting her heritage and what that meant for her, onto him with each dish created.
Though Coming Home Again focuses on mother and son, and their relationship is compelling, you wonder where the rest of the family is. There’s mention of the father (John Lie) but he’s nowhere to be seen. The only indication that he’s ever been in the house are echoes of past conversations and flash-backs of him listening to the radio, while sitting in a large leather upholstered high back chair that now sat unused in the living room.
We see Chang-rae speaking with Ji-young (Christina July Kim) over the phone making plans for her return home from Korea to celebrate the new year approaching. Seeing how much her mother’s physical condition has deteriorated, Ji-young has a difficult time accepting how grave her mother’s situation is. As a woman working to build a career in a patriarchal society , she has struggled to find her place on the corporate ladder and after finally achieving the success she has worked so hard to attain, she feels guilt at not being able to be there, which causes conflict between her and Chang-rae.
While Coming Home Again relies on the dialogue to tell us what the characters are feeling, it’s Wang’s direction, cinematography by Richard Wong, and the set design that gives the story even more weight. For most of the scenes with Chang-rae and Mom, they’re centered in the shot. Closeups of the hands, facial expressions, and reflections are done so every emotion is conveyed, but for Dad who seems fine with existing in the periphery of his family’s life, he’s literally placed off centre. Like someone ready to leave the room as quickly as possible without being noticed.
The set design and cinematography gives cinema audiences the feeling of watching a stage production up close, seeing extremely intimate look at a family on the verge of collapse. Living in the same Queen Anne style house they’ve been in for years, it’s expected that there would be some obvious wear and tear, like walls in need of plastering and fresh paint. But seeing these imperfections feels like seeing the scars on a family that was once whole, slowly falling apart bit by bit and you realize just how lonely Mom has probably been all this time in a house where she only had the memories created there to keep her company. Her loss means that the one thing that might cause it all to finally fall apart – cause them to fall apart is the disease destroying her body bit by bit.
Throughout the film both Chung and Chon have been captivating as two people doing their best to put on a brave face to encourage each other, but it’s Chon that really owns the film in the quiet moments when his performance is focused as someone on the brink of shattering emotionally and it’s in the final act where he shows just how tightly Chang-rae has been keeping his emotions in check.
Coming Home Again reaches it’s heart rending climax when the family dressed in what would be called their “Sunday best” finally sits down to partake of the dinner Chang-rae has diligently prepared. There’s a sense of finality, as though they (and the audience) know it could be their final supper, and the tension that has been slowly simmering finally reaches a boiling point when in the cruelest irony of all, Mom is unable eat the food she taught her son to make.
The cancer has robbed her of the ability to literally stomach the food she once took so much joy in, and casts a shadow over what is supposed to be an occasion where one looks forward to new beginnings with hope. Chang-rae overcome with all the emotions he’s kept subdued, finally releases all his feelings of anger, grief and disappoint in a torrent of tears and soul racking sobs. Mom tries her best to console him but it’s to no avail as she understands that he has accepted the devastating reality of what’s to come.
There are moments when it seems like the film is dragging but it’s difficult to say if that is due to the actual pacing or perhaps how one interprets what is happening on screen, but be that as it may, Wang has woven a story that for some is the painfully familiar past and present of a family on the cusp of a change no one looks forward to. Like the meat of the kalbi needing to stay connected to the bone so it can retain it’s flavor, Coming Home Again serves as a beautiful though sorrowful reminder to hold onto those moments of love, and memories of who we were (and are), so that one day hopefully they become someone else’s.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.