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Arts & Life

Mother And Son Relationship Explored In Film 'Coming Home Again'

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Outsider Pictures

Wayne Wang has been making films since 1976. They include Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club and Smoke. His new film, Coming Home Again, is nervy and unsettling.

A pair of hands deftly slice the meat off some short ribs. The hands belong to Changrae, a 30-something Korean man. His mother’s voice enters his thoughts, reminding him how to leave some meat connected to the bone. While he prepares this Korean dish, Changrae walks into the next room where his mother is cutting the meat. For a moment, Changrae steps into the past.

His mother is dying, and Changrae has left his job in New York to return to San Francisco to care for her. The movie takes place in one day, New Year’s, but it dips into memory as Changrae thinks about his mother. He makes the dish for what may well be her last meal.

But devotion to his mother doesn’t come easily to this assimilated son. His mother is Christian — Changrae rejects religion — and he has to endure a visitation from friends who sing and pray over her, but also try to draw him in. He thinks about the two-way guilt when his parents sent him to the prestigious Eastern prep school Exeter. Changrae and his mother argue over the gnarly balance between ambition and assimilation.

There’s plenty of parental pressure to achieve in America and assimilate, but of course, the parents want the opposite also — a son who’s still Korean.

It makes for awkward moments, and that’s where director Wayne Wang has been brilliant for decades. He doesn’t resolve these fundamental arguments. They hang in the air, even when people are relaxed and enjoying themselves. It’s the unruly, uneasy texture of life. The movie doesn’t let you off the hook; you’re stuck with these tough moments. This mother-son relationship is difficult and conflicted, and that’s not going to change.

Wayne Wang films with a rock-steady camera inside the mother’s apartment. It’s a place of unyielding verticals and horizontals — of windows, doors, counters, and cabinets. It’s a hard-edged frame to hold the emotional struggles of the human beings within it. And Changrae does his tasks with a precision that matches the rigor of the building — as he changes his mother’s IV or patches the plaster on a wall..

Sometimes, this exacting world feels confining — you’re locked in with an inescapable relationship. But at the same time, the certainty of the walls and doors lets you feel safe. It IS a good container for the profound emotional turmoil within Changrae and his mother, but it never denies how tough it all is.

Wayne Wang calls Coming Home Again a poem to his mother, and he says he didn’t make the film for other people. But it is for other people, and if you’ve ever had a parent, you know it.

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