QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL
This is no one’s idea of a happy return. Chang-rae (Justin Chon) has a promising job and career in New York. His mother regrets that he left and hardly visits his parents in San Francisco. The family migrated from Korea when our protagonist/scriptwriter was just three years old. One day the young and bright writer does return, but there are hardly reasons to celebrate. His mother is dying with stomach cancer. The chemotherapy isn’t working and the tumour is quickly methastasising. Chang-rae wishes to bond with his still young and good-looking mother. They have to bond mostly through pain, as there is virtually no joy in terminal cancer.
The latest movie by 70-year-old Hong Kong-American writer Wayne Wang zigzags back in time to before and after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. The healthy and vibrant female is contrasted with her bald and ailing version, as she experiences the symptoms of very intense chemotherapy. Chang-rae notes that the disease is particularly cruel because it prevents her from eating. Food is central not just to Korean cinema, but also to Korean culture as a whole. There is abundant kimchi, yache twigim and noddles throughout the film. Food of a token of love. We learn that mother used to make delicious kalbi, and she taught her son that “the meat should always stay attached to the bone”. Her teaching acquires a tragic symbolism as she succumbs to the fatal disease.
In the film’s most powerful sequence, Chang-rae attempts to make kalbi on New Year’s eve for his mother, father and sister. At this stage, mother has requested that all chemotherapy should stop and she should receive palliative care instead. Chang-rae and his sister struggle to acquiesce the impending death. Mother is far more accepting of her fate. It becomes clear that wanting to protect and hang on to the loved ones is sometimes a gesture of selfishness. Her children’s altruistic yet erratic behaviour only serves to increase her pain.
We also learn about the moment mother first experienced symptoms of cancer, during a car journey with her husband. He stopped the vehicle so that she could throw up. Despite not being present, that event became fossilised in Chang-rae’s mind. He shudders with fear and raises a number of questions every time he sees two people huddled up in a car parked on the roadside. Could one of these people be about to experience the same fate as his mother? A very accurate depiction of trauma by proxy.
Based on an essay by Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee himself, Coming Home Again is cinema at its most raw personal. Plus a fine example of cinema as a healing tool, for a wound that Chang-rae left open for a long time. This is particularly difficult viewing for me because losing my mother – who also lives very far away and has battled with cancer – is my very greatest fear in life. Coming Home Again reminded me of the unbreakable bond between mother and son, and of unchallengeable nature of impermanence. A must-see.
Coming Home Again just premiered in Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, which is taking place right now.