Wayne Wang is one of the pioneers of Asian-American cinema, often providing a unique voice on the topics of identity, immigration and integration. In his long and fruitful career, listing 22 feature-length films over the course of 44 years, he has made some of the biggest and most beloved indie hits like “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) and “Smoke” (1995), had his chance of earning Hollywood fame with “Maid in Manhattan” (2002), but he always came back to Asian-American themes. The other thing characteristic for Wang is the tendency to work with the material sourced in literature. Both stated facts hold for his latest film, “Coming Home Again”, which was shown at Toronto and Busan before having its European premiere in the official selection at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn.
However, “Coming Home Again” will take a special place in Wang’s filmography. The reason for that is the type of the material he works with: a deeply personal, autobiographical and essayist reflective stream of consciousness-type short story written by Lee Chang-rae. It is a challenge, but Wang has always been unorthodox in his choice of literary bases for his cinematic works, preferring to adapt short stories rather than novels and even experimenting with his own and his creative partner Paul Auster’s observations on their two-tome 1995 collaboration consisting of “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”.
Wang opens the film with narration by Chang-rae, played by Justin Chon, about a special way to prepare beef short-ribs by almost filleting it, but leaving the bone attached to the meat on the side, so the meat can suck its richness. On that one, he is quoting his mother (Jackie Chung), the woman who had been always treating him with good food. But the mother’s cruel sickness, stomach cancer, is the reason why Chang-rae left his well-payed job in New York and went back to his childhood home: he feels obliged to take care of his dying mother who was always the first to sacrifice her own happiness for the well-being of the family, since his college professor father is busy with work and his career-pursuing sister lives in South Korea.
The plot of the film (sort to speak) takes place over the course of one day, but through flashbacks, narrations and reminiscences, Lee as a writer and Wang as a filmmaker reveal more background details about the family’s past, making the movie more of a meditation on the subjects of family, ambition, self-sacrifice and the constant fear of death. “Coming Home Again” is far from an easy watch due to its sombre topic and essay-like storytelling through voice-over narration with only a small portion of dialogue and in the complete absence of “action” of any kind. On the other hand, it is clearly a work of a filmmaking master and one of the best films of its kind.
The reason for that is Wang’s sure-handed directing and meticulous approach to the material that makes “Coming Home Again” easy to follow and navigate. The scenes set in the present are cold in terms of colours, the camera is usually fixed and it observes the characters from behind, while those set in flashbacks, memories and reminiscences are richer in colour, filmed with hand-held camera and more dynamic. The absence of external music (that is not the part of the plot) until the very end is also telling what kind of emotions Wang aims for and actually scores, for which he also has to thank his crew, the cinematographer Richard Wong as well as Ashley Pagan and Deirdre Slevin, who were handling the editing.
The actors also deserve to be considered among the film’s highlights. Justin Chon (“Twilight Saga”, “Gook”) finds a good balance between the multiple roles he has to fill in as a character, but also as an observer and narrator, aiming either for more of a cerebral effect or for pure emotion. Jackie Chung has even a harder mission playing a character who barely moves and talks, but she handles it with grace, making “Coming Home Again” an emotional and cinematic experience hardly comparable to anything else.