TIFF 2019: Coming Home Again, by David Bax
Like so many Wayne Wang films, Coming Home Again is deceptively, almost detrimentally, slight. Perhaps one of the least pretentious directors working today, he has once again made a film that is sly in its straightforwardness, ultimately overcoming its occasional obviousness with devastating honesty. Also, it belongs to one of the great subgenres of international cinema, the food movie, containing not just mouthwatering depictions of meal preparation but also the most powerful grief-eating scene since David Lowery’s A Ghost Story.
Coming Home Again, at least superficially, takes place over the course of a single day, as Changrae (Justin Chong) prepares a New Year’s Eve dinner for his dying mother (Jackie Chung) and the rest of his scattered immediate family. But Wang intentionally plays fast and loose with the chronology, trickily putting Chong in the same costume–khakis and an unbuttoned salmon oxford shirt over a white t-shirt–even in flashbacks that take place years earlier.
As with his studio pictures like Anywhere but Here and Maid in Manhattan, Wang favors a handsome scope frame, which he wields with the eye of a classicist. The still symmetry of the cinematography belies Changrae’s mental state as the one member of the family attempting to keep things on track. With Chung’s matriarch succumbing to cancer, everyone else either ignores the problem or insists on its eventual defeat. Only Changrae acknowledges that his mother is about to die and, thus, is the only one already feeling her loss, even as he attempts to observe the traditions that make everyone else more comfortable.
Chon, who made waves as the director of 2017’s Gook, is often unable to bear the weight the screenplay demands of him. Despite the closely observed strengths of the screenplay, he seems out of his range, especially compared to the emotional depth of Chung, whose performance relays the full emotional life of this misunderstood mother, soon to be taken from her family far too early, with regrets unresolved and with her sacrifices unappreciated.
But don’t let the fact that this is a movie you could comfortably watch with your parents distract you from its final emotional power. The Leonard Cohen song on the soundtrack at the end (thankfully not “Hallelujah”) is nowhere near as trite as most uses of Cohen’s material in cinema’s recent years. For all of its sentimentality, Coming Home Again recognizes that nothing–not tradition, reasoning, or even plain old acceptance–can forestall death or its destructive repercussions.