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'Coming Home Again,' culinary wisdom deepens mother-son bond

Top photo shows a still of the film "Coming Home Again," an adaptation of Korean American novelist Chang-rae Lee's 1995 short story of the same title. Actress Jackie Chung, bottom left, played the mother. Wayne Wang directed the film revolving around the story of a son taking care of his dying mother and learning Korean culinary traditions from her. Courtesy of BIFF

By Lee Gyu-lee

BUSAN ― "Coming Home Again," a film centering on second-generation Korean-Americans, tells the universal story of family and what it means for people to help them connect to one another before it's too late.

The film has been invited to a gala presentation screening of the 24th Busan International Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 2 to 12.

"Coming Home Again" is based on Korean-American novelist Lee Chang-rea's essay of the same name published in The New Yorker in 1995. The award-winning essay is about Lee coming back to his parents' house to take care of his dying mother and learning to cook from her.

Director Wayne Wang, known for directing Hollywood films such as "The Joy Luck Club" (1993) and "Maid in Manhattan" (2002) said that this story stayed with him since he first read the essay. And when he went through a similar phase with his mother, who passed away after suffering from Parkinson's disease in 2014, the story touched him even more and led to him cinematizing the story with Lee in 2018.

The slow-paced film sticks to the original essay ― the story of a man Lee Chang-rea (Justin Chon) leaving his successful job in New York to take care of his terminally ill mother (Jackie Chung) in San Francisco. As the mother prepares for her last day, she teaches Lee the recipes for the Korean dishes she used to make for him.

"This film made me think a lot about family. You can reflect on your own life and own family from the film and it has done that for me ― thinking about what I want to pass on to my son and what I know about my family," said actress Chung in an interview with The Korea Times, Sunday, at the Busan Cinema Center in Busan.

As she said, the film focuses on a son trying to accept the reality of losing his mother, while longing to make up for the days he missed with her after he left to attend a prestigious school and moved on with his life.

Food is used to give a sense of nostalgia and symbolizes the mother-son bond that Chang-rea hopes to restore with his dying mother. As the film focuses on the detailed process of making traditional dishes such as galbi ― marinated beef ― his mother's voice and flashbacks of her teaching him are woven into the narrative, as if she is preparing him to live on his own when she's gone. Chung explained that a food consultant was on set to teach Chung and Choi, and to add authenticity.

A scene from the film./ Courtesy of BIFF

Though the film runs toward the anticipated death of a mother, it is never cliche or overly-sentimental. Shots of the house - always full of light ― and close-ups of the son's glances offer traces of emotion, but just enough to provide a nuanced depiction of the son's grief, to allow a moment to take it in.

The film continuously pulls back to scenes from before his mother was on her deathbed, but the flashbacks weave in so seamlessly with present scenes, making it ambiguous exactly when the flashback is taking viewers back to.

As the film constantly goes back and forth in time, the director intended the mother's age to be ambiguous as well, Chung noted.

Chung, who's only a few years apart in age from actor Chon, said she didn't have much of a problem and never felt awkward playing the mother. "Something switched in my mind and I was like 'you look like my son as an adult'," she said.

As the actors were fully into the roles, she said there was a lot of improvising on set. "I think this was the beauty of the project," she expressed.

"Wayne had this piece that we were following but he was also like 'let's see. There's no pressure on us,' so we're just going to try things and see what comes out of it in the story that we built together."

As a daughter of an immigrant mother herself, she said she could relate to the role and felt that the writer Lee Chang-rae's mother was similar to her mother, as she learned the character. "I had the image of my mother in the back of my mind when I was playing the character," she said.

"It's a universal family story that anyone can relate to. And I just hope people make connections with their own family before it's too late," Chung lastly added as she described the film. "This is the kind of movie that makes you want to call your mom after watching it."


Top photo shows a still of the film "Coming Home Again," an adaptation of Korean American novelist Chang-rae Lee's 1995 short story of the same title. Actress Jackie Chung, bottom left, played the mother. Wayne Wang directed the film revolving around the story of a son taking care of his dying mother and learning Korean culinary traditions from her. Courtesy of BIFF

By Lee Gyu-lee

BUSAN ― "Coming Home Again," a film centering on second-generation Korean-Americans, tells the universal story of family and what it means for people to help them connect to one another before it's too late.

The film has been invited to a gala presentation screening of the 24th Busan International Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 2 to 12.

"Coming Home Again" is based on Korean-American novelist Lee Chang-rea's essay of the same name published in The New Yorker in 1995. The award-winning essay is about Lee coming back to his parents' house to take care of his dying mother and learning to cook from her.

Director Wayne Wang, known for directing Hollywood films such as "The Joy Luck Club" (1993) and "Maid in Manhattan" (2002) said that this story stayed with him since he first read the essay. And when he went through a similar phase with his mother, who passed away after suffering from Parkinson's disease in 2014, the story touched him even more and led to him cinematizing the story with Lee in 2018.

The slow-paced film sticks to the original essay ― the story of a man Lee Chang-rea (Justin Chon) leaving his successful job in New York to take care of his terminally ill mother (Jackie Chung) in San Francisco. As the mother prepares for her last day, she teaches Lee the recipes for the Korean dishes she used to make for him.

"This film made me think a lot about family. You can reflect on your own life and own family from the film and it has done that for me ― thinking about what I want to pass on to my son and what I know about my family," said actress Chung in an interview with The Korea Times, Sunday, at the Busan Cinema Center in Busan.

As she said, the film focuses on a son trying to accept the reality of losing his mother, while longing to make up for the days he missed with her after he left to attend a prestigious school and moved on with his life.

Food is used to give a sense of nostalgia and symbolizes the mother-son bond that Chang-rea hopes to restore with his dying mother. As the film focuses on the detailed process of making traditional dishes such as galbi ― marinated beef ― his mother's voice and flashbacks of her teaching him are woven into the narrative, as if she is preparing him to live on his own when she's gone. Chung explained that a food consultant was on set to teach Chung and Choi, and to add authenticity.

A scene from the film./ Courtesy of BIFF

Though the film runs toward the anticipated death of a mother, it is never cliche or overly-sentimental. Shots of the house - always full of light ― and close-ups of the son's glances offer traces of emotion, but just enough to provide a nuanced depiction of the son's grief, to allow a moment to take it in.

The film continuously pulls back to scenes from before his mother was on her deathbed, but the flashbacks weave in so seamlessly with present scenes, making it ambiguous exactly when the flashback is taking viewers back to.

As the film constantly goes back and forth in time, the director intended the mother's age to be ambiguous as well, Chung noted.

Chung, who's only a few years apart in age from actor Chon, said she didn't have much of a problem and never felt awkward playing the mother. "Something switched in my mind and I was like 'you look like my son as an adult'," she said.

As the actors were fully into the roles, she said there was a lot of improvising on set. "I think this was the beauty of the project," she expressed.

"Wayne had this piece that we were following but he was also like 'let's see. There's no pressure on us,' so we're just going to try things and see what comes out of it in the story that we built together."

As a daughter of an immigrant mother herself, she said she could relate to the role and felt that the writer Lee Chang-rae's mother was similar to her mother, as she learned the character. "I had the image of my mother in the back of my mind when I was playing the character," she said.

"It's a universal family story that anyone can relate to. And I just hope people make connections with their own family before it's too late," Chung lastly added as she described the film. "This is the kind of movie that makes you want to call your mom after watching it."


Lee Gyu-lee gyulee@koreatimes.co.kr


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