A man counts down, as a family rings in the new year in a dark room. There is silence until a young man standing by the window walks over to the couch, hugs his mom intensely, and begins to sob, telling her not to go and that he loves her.
This is Chang-Rae (Justin Chon) who has left his job in New York to come back home to care for his sick mother. The film directed by Wayne Wang is based on the essay of the same name by Chang Rae-lee.
The film begins with a close-up shot of Ray slicing meat. There are no other sounds other than that of the knife. He then begins a voice-over of the tips his mom (Jackie Chung) gave about making this dish kalbi. Close-up shots of food preparation are abundant in Coming Home Again and we are able to appreciate the beauty of food preparation. We also see how food served as a way to build relationships, make memories, and show love in Ray’s family. There were many moments when the cinematography would juxtapose past memories with the present. While Ray is making the Korean dish, kalbi, the voice-over switches from his voice to his mom. He then reminisces about watching his mom prepare the kalbi.
There is no music, so every other noise feels amplified, water running, the cutting of meat, the rustling of fabrics, the ticking of the clock, and his mom’s labored breathing. Being able to hear everything so clearly and vividly makes the film feel more intimate. It is like we are in the apartment with them.
There are many moments of silence, and we are left to ponder with the characters. After the emotionally heavy New Year’s celebration, we see his mom sitting on her bed just staring. Her husband (John Lie) silently comes into the room, stands for a bit then silently goes to sit next to her. No words are exchanged.
The lighting is somber - the screen is dark with cool tones. The only time it switches to a warmer, orange light is during the New Year’s Eve dinner - also the only moment when the whole family is together.
The importance of details in Coming Home Again
In the house, there is a window in the kitchen that looks directly into the mom’s room. Many shots are framed within this window - like when his sister (Christina July Kim) finally comes to visit or when we first see the state of his mom.
The film is filled with fairly mundane activities, but these simple moments are still heart-wrenching. In one moment, Ray’s mom attempts to paint her toenails. She eventually gives up and begins to paint the toenails of a Jesus figurine. Later, while cleaning her room, Ray finds the statue, and we see him looking at the toes. The film also focuses on the details around the house. Through close up shots, we see how the house is deteriorating physically too—the chipped walls, a piece of duck tape on the armchair, fruit beginning to rot, and a spilled bottle of nail polish. Yet, there are also shots of his past—like old trophies.
Coming Home Again is an intimate look into multiple relationships in a Korean American immigrant family. We see the types of relationships each member of the family has with each other, and we also see how differently they come to terms with their mom’s health. Many of the moments Ray has with his mom—sporadically talking in Korea, his mom cutting fruit for him, Ray asking why they came to America, and Ray’s argument with his mom about calling about a bill on his mom’s behalf—are all experiences Korean Americans (and Asian Americans in general) can relate to in this writer’s opinion.
Coming Home Again is highly recommended to those who enjoy films about the intimate relationship of an Asian immigrant family. But, those who do not enjoy dialogue and emotion heavy films may want to forgo this one.
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Director: Wayne Wang
Justin Chon as Chang-Rae
Jackie Chung as Mom
Christina July Kim as Jiyoung
John Lie as Dad
For more information on where to watch the film visit Outside Pictures
Read the essay on which the film was based: Coming Home Again
Images Courtesy of Outsiders Pictures
About the Author: Lisa Ryou
Lisa Ryou is from a suburb of Chicago. Having lived near Chicago her whole life, she is no stranger to the creative scene of the city. She is currently studying History, Museum Studies, and Art at the University of Michigan. She has been involved in fine arts her whole life and tries to use her works, both art and writing, as a way to give voice to BIPOC. When she is not at school, you can find her baking, reading, painting, or taking photos.