Chon, a sensitive director in his own right behind features like “Gook” and “Ms. Purple,” is in optimal acting shape. Chang-rae is falling fast into a mental abyss; his emotions are in disarray. Impeccably, Chon plays him as a man trying to contain that storm that brews within. It’s only in the final stages of the heartbreaking ordeal that Chang-rae’s behavior, mourning while his mother is still alive, and the actor lose touch with film’s understated grace. But even those small narrative diversions feel somewhat justified if not exactly subtle.
As great as Chon is on his own, including a moving and tonally intricate scene where Chang-rae meets an old friend, the movie is a two-hander. A devastating Chung dignifies a mother in physical agony, but who still questions herself and those around her. Hers is a double performance, one staring at the end of life and another, while still more lucid, taking stock of what she built in it and her shortcoming while doing it. Each confrontation with Chon’s character is utterly cathartic.
“My job is to be your son,” an angry Chang-rae tells her when she questions his decision to set aside his profession to come care for her. There are also tender exchanges of a child meeting his parent as an individual who had a life before being responsible for another person’s survival. Through all of these glimpses of a relationship trampled and perhaps accelerated by illness, the constant is an ambivalence about every decision that brought them here and the unspoken resentment that has to be relieved now or never.
“Coming Home Again” doesn’t sanctify the image of the mother, but instead aims to truly capture the full-bodied personhood of the woman Lee put on the page. Amid the trauma that the co-leads undergo, Wang examines the rips and repairs in the connecting tissue between us and the people who, through their action or inaction, mold us into who we are.
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