Director Wayne Wang had long been a fan of the story Coming Home Again, written by award-winning novelist Chang-rae Lee, but turning the essay into a film required finding the perfect home to set it in. Wang was working on a VR camera project with Don Young, program director for the Center for Asian American Media, when Young mentioned that his late grandmother’s apartment was empty.
“She had a really nice typical San Francisco apartment,” said Wang. “And I said, why don’t we take Chang-rae Lee’s story and put it into that apartment and in a way pay our respects to Chang-rae’s mother, my mother, who passed away six years ago; and also Don’s grandmother.”
Thus, the location reinforced the story’s homage to maternal love and memories of home. Lee’s biographical essay focuses on the time he spent caring for his mother when she was dying. One of the ways he expressed his love was carefully preparing the dishes she once made for him. The apartment’s layout, with the proximity of the sickroom, where Chang-rae’s mother rests, and the kitchen, where he prepares her food, offers a visual reference to the film’s theme.
Young, the producer of documentaries and feature films, including the PBS series Asian Americans, suggested the apartment based on a gut feeling. “When we brought Wayne by the house with our director of photography, Rich Wong,” said Young. “I could tell within two minutes that we were going to shoot the film there.”
Wang’s response was also visceral. Something about the life lived within the space felt right.
“The older I get I have this kind of an unknown sense for the myth and the history in a place,” said Wang. “Or in a project. It’s not logical, it’s not something you can explain, but you know that when your heart feels right, you do something. This place gave me that and this project also gave me that. It’s a biography from Chang-rae Lee and he was so generous to say, take it, do it, for your mother. There’s good will behind all of it and good spirits. As I get older this is something that is really important to me.”
Wang, who previously directed Joy Luck Club, Somewhere Else, Maid In Manhattan, and Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, found that Coming Home was a very easy film to put together. Everything fell into place. “That’s how it started. It kind of just came together. It’s unusual that it came together so easily for a low-budget film.”
Financing began with the money originally earmarked for the VR project, which they decided would not work. More investment followed. Young, who produced the film, spoke to the Director’s Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild about the possibility of working with a smaller crew.
“We were able to get people who were interested, from the union, to work on this film and to make deals that were much, much simpler, so we could end up with a crew of about 15 to make this film,” said Wang. “We originally shot for about two weeks and then realized we didn’t have enough material, so we shot for another week.”
The film has only a few characters, Chang-rae played by Justin Chon, his mother played by Jackie Chung, plus Christina July Kim as his sister Ji-young and John Lie as Chang-rae’s father. Most of the film involves only Chang-rae and his mother. Casting Chon, who is also a director and producer, was easy.
“I knew his work already and I was also very impressed that he was a director,” said Wang. “He made a film called Gook and he showed me a rough cut of Ms. Purple and I like the idea of working with another director, who is offering his creative ideas too.”
Finding the right actress to play the mother was not as easy, but then Wang’s casting agent, Heidi Levitt, suggested an actress she cast in a play.
“We both looked at the play,” said Wang. “We met her, she read for us and we decided that she was the right person. She does look a little bit young, but I liked the idea of the mother and son looking closer in age.”
Food plays an essential role in the film, both the food Chang-rae prepares for his mother and the food she once made for and with him. Food that looks and tastes like home.
“It’s the essence of the story,” said Wang. “The whole story really is the son is preparing this New Year’s Eve meal for the mother in the same way the mother has always prepared for the family. A lot of the memories about their past actually come out of them preparing the food.”
In Lee’s original essay, he describes his mother’s preparation of kalbi, the traditional Korean ribs dish, how she methodically butterflied the flesh, “cutting and unfolding, repeating the action until the meat lay out on her board, glistening and ready for seasoning.” In the film Chang-rae cuts the meat precisely, careful not to separate it from the bone, which his mother said gives it flavor.
“That’s such a great metaphor for the film and that’s the image that opens the film,” said Wang. “I love food films.”
To create beautiful and authentic dishes, Wang asked Corey Lee, a three-star Michelin chef, to help with the film’s food. A fan of the original story, he agreed.
“One of the things that was really interesting was instead of a rehearsal, the two actors actually spent two weeks rehearsing in the kitchen and learning how to cook,” said Wang.
Once the film was complete, it needed to find another home—one with a distribution company that had experience promoting independent films and would recognize the film’s worth. The producers found that home with Outsider Pictures, founded by Paul Hudson in 2005. Outsider Pictures distributes mostly Latin films, but beside picking up Coming Home, Hudson recently acquired Aviva by Boaz Yakin, a Finnish film called Helene, and a Polish animated film.
“I’ve got a really, really great taste,” said Hudson. “But I can’t afford my taste so that makes me very smart about what I buy and very economical.”
Coming Home Again hit its first major hurdle with distribution when COVID19 began to shutter theaters and companies began to delay the release of films. Hudson quickly pivoted to promoting virtual cinema, which he says has benefits for a unique film like Coming Home.
“Cinemas are taking the film and keeping it going,” said Hudson. “It doesn’t cost them anything to keep it going. I provide them with a commitment to spend money to promote the film, so I’m giving them a little money every week as part of my marketing spend. I share all my reviews with them. Everything is being done virtually, as they don’t have the staff that they had before.”
Having debuted at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, the film is now physically playing in only a couple of theaters but can also be screened virtually. Film marketing focused on virtual interviews and online webinars.
“The original strategy was of course, it’s a Wayne Wang movie, it has great performances and was written by an acclaimed writer,” said Hudson. “Put those people in a theater and that gives people a reason to go. What’s funny is that, I think, given where we are with COVID, it actually makes the choice of watching the film an easier one because the audience doesn’t need to decide whether or not to leave the house.”
Rave reviews help.
“Now the audience gets to see these amazing reviews, because the film got 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes,” said Hudson. “They like the film, they see the value of the film, the quality of the filmmaking, the ideas behind it. They might have dismissed the movie in the regular cinema-going world; it might have just gotten lost.”
Young says the film delivers something needed at this particular moment in time. In a pandemic year when there’s a focus on redefining priorities, a film about coming home resonates.
“Wayne always seems to have this knack of timing,” said Young. “Some five weeks ago, we were not sure whether audiences would respond to the film and it’s clear from the reviews that the film is really connecting, certainly with the reviewers, and we expect that over time, with the life of the film, that it’s going to become this symbol of this moment of isolation that the world has gone through on various levels.”
This story was originally published on forbes.com.