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First Look Review - COMING HOME AGAIN

coming home again review
As a young man prepares a meal for his ailing mother, unresolved family issues bubble to the surface.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Wayne Wang

Starring: Justin Chon, Jackie Chung, John Lie, Christina July Kim

coming home again poster

One of the most memorable sequences from Bob Fosse's Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny sees Dustin Hoffman recreate a routine in which the comic railed against how the media portrayed Jackie Kennedy's immediate reaction to her husband taking a bullet to the head in Dallas. Footage of the event shows the First Lady leaning over JFK, and the media chose to portray this action as Jackie shielding her stricken husband from further shots. Maybe that's the case, but as Bruce argues, it's far more likely she was simply ducking for cover to avoid being shot herself. And that's a perfectly fine, instinctual reaction. By framing the First Lady as hero, Bruce contended, the media was setting impossible standards for the public to live up to.

Movies tend to do this too, especially American movies, whether products of Hollywood or the indie sphere. Protagonists are too often aspirational rather than relatable, heroic rather than human. Life isn't that simple. In reality we rarely act in the moment how we'd like to on reflection. Wayne Wang understands this. In his new film, Coming Home Again - co-written with novelist Chang-rae Lee and based on the latter's 1995 New Yorker essay - a twentysomething Korean-American man struggles to find a way to say goodbye to his cancer-stricken mother. Where most American movies would see such a protagonist combat his demons and find the strength to open up to his Mom before her passing, most likely in a teary "Oscar moment" speech", Wang recognises that life simply doesn't play out that way.

coming home again review

"She's got cancer!" is the matter of fact answer Changrae (Justin Chon) gives to an old childhood acquaintance he bumps into on the street following a throwaway enquiry about the state of his mother. Changrae immediately apologises for making his old friend uncomfortable, but as he says himself, there's really no sugar-coating such a fact. Mom (Jackie Chung) has stage four stomach cancer, a specifically cruel affliction as she can no longer enjoy food, the preparation of which was her one great hobby.


Quitting his job in New York, Changrae has returned to his San Francisco home to help look after his mother in her final weeks. As it's New Years Eve, Changrae decides the greatest gesture he can make to his mother is to prepare the meal she often gifted him as a child - 'kalbi', beef cut in thin slices while remaining attached to the bone, "to absorb its goodness." The irony of preparing food for a woman who can no longer swallow solids seemingly escapes Changrae as he loses himself in the meal-making while his sister (Christina July Kim) and father (John Lie) bicker over his mother's wishes to come off Chemo treatment.

coming home again review

As the day plays out and the beef slowly crispens, Wang employs a flashback structure that sees the adult Changrae taking the place of his naive childhood self in moments he originally wasn't paying attention to, but which now clearly signal how unhappy his mother was in her marriage, which may have been dogged by his father's affair with a younger woman. There are recalled moments of minor cruelty, like Changrae calling his mother lazy for asking him to call the bank, paranoid that they won't understand her Korean accent. These regrets clearly play out in Changrae's mind, but he can't find the courage to bring them up in the present.

Conversely, his mother, now with nothing left to lose, is happy to raise her own regrets, particularly about sending her son to a boarding school as a boy. When asked why she did so if it went against her wishes, she replies bluntly "I didn't know I was going to die then."


The halls of the San Francisco home Wang's film plays out in are filled with the must of years of passive aggression. Rooms are exited at the point when an argument is just about to break out. Conversations are held out of earshot of other family members. Old wounds are left to fester, peeling like the paint on the apartment's walls. Can a well-prepared meal fix all this? Unlikely, but it's all Chang-rae can muster (and to be fair, if any meal has such powers, it's this one - prepared by acclaimed chef Corey Lee, it will have you rushing to your nearest Korean restaurant).

coming home again review

Essentially a chamber piece, Wang confines most of his inaction to the interiors of the family home. More intimate moments - such as Changrae cleaning up his mother's vomit or refilling the bags of slop that now constitute her food intake - are filmed at a distance. The effect on the viewer is of being in the shoes of a door to door salesman invited into an uncomfortable scenario and left to hover awkwardly in doorways and on couches. In the climactic scenario, Wang and editors Ashley Pagan and Deidre Slevin refuse to cut to wide angles, holding on the faces of Changrae and his mother as the latter attempts to convince her son that despite her inability to enjoy the food he's lovingly prepared, she's proud of him nonetheless. You may find yourself shuffling uncomfortably in your own seat, such is the tension.

Despite the specificity of its Korean-American setting, Coming Home Again should connect with global audiences, particularly in Northern Europe, where we similarly struggle to tell our loved ones how important they are to us, and like Changrae here, we need the social lubrication of alcohol to open up. Audiences in more extroverted cultures may view Wang's film as a tragedy, and I guess it is in its own way. But it's an honest examination of how families cope with impending loss, one that astutely avoids proselytising or a lecturing tone. It's all the more comforting for it.

Coming Home Again is in US cinemas and virtual cinemas now. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

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