Sometimes a bone is just a bone. But to Wayne Wang, the rib that dutiful son Chang-rae (Justin Chon) ravages at the end of the director’s latest film, “Coming Home Again,” represents something far deeper — the liberation from his recently departed mother.
“The scene that says a lot to me is when Justin is eating the ribs that his mother taught him to make and tearing the meat off the bone,” says the San Francisco-based moviemaker known for 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” and 1995’s “Smoke.” “You’re always connected to that bone, but you’re also trying to tear away from it in a very frustrated, angry way.”
On one level, “Coming Home Again,” which premieres at the all-virtual CAAMFest Forward (presented by the Center for Asian American Media) on Friday before coming to select theaters on Oct. 23, is about a first-generation Korean-American (Chon) preparing a traditional meal for his dying, emotionally reserved and highly controlling mother (played by Jackie Chung) on Korean New Year’s Eve.
But in Wang’s hands, author Chang-rae Lee’s 1995 biographical New Yorker essay is amplified into a psychological deep dive into the heavy burden of family expectations and the often emotionally fraught relationship between mothers and sons.
For the sake of realism, Wang incorporated scenes that capture the complicated dynamic he shared with his own mother, who died in her 90s, half a dozen years ago.
“I was very close to my mother in a strange way — not in a typical way,” he says. “She was a very private person who didn’t hug me, but shook hands with me. So it was a very difficult situation to deal with.”
But the director, who believes that everything has a yin and a yang, also sees an upside to these interactions. The moments with his mother he remembers most fondly were spent quietly sitting with her in the courtyard garden of her assisted living facility.
“I liked that silence a lot,” says Wang. “It’s not about the words or going over your conflicts in the past. It’s about accepting the moment then. I could then sense all the love and emotions she had for me.”
“Coming Home Again” has a lot of quiet scenes, which Wang says are lacking in most American films. The silence allows Chang-rae to sit in thought and come to terms with both the good and the bad he experienced growing up in a traditional Korean-American family.
When Wang got the call that his own mother was dying, he was away working and returned to see her as soon as possible. He admits to being grateful for the opportunity to sit in silence at her bedside, sharing her final moments with her. But he still beats himself up for the time that he missed.
“It’s always a difficult day when somebody passes away and not completely being there,” he says. “I think this film is about accepting somebody very close to you and their life and death in a way where it comes and goes and you have no control over it.”
IF YOU GO: Coming Home Again
Starring: Justin Chon, Jackie Chung
Written by: Wayne Wang, Chang-rae Lee
Directed by: Wayne Wang
Not yet rated
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Note: Tickets to the 7 p.m. Oct. 16 online screening are $15. Visit https://caamfest.com/forward/ for details