How do you learn to forgive after family tragedy? That’s a question Chen-yun the heroine of Chang Ming Yu’s documentary The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Huíjiā de Lǐyóu) begins to ask herself as she tries to come to terms with an extremely traumatic history while preparing to become a mother. As a close friend of his subject, Chang is both companion and chronicler, a quietly supportive presence as Chen-yun navigates these extremely difficult emotional waters, but also prompting her to think more deeply about the concept of family at the exact moment in which she begins to found her own.
The reason Chen-yun returns home after a five year absence is that she is told her younger brother has been taken seriously ill. In fact, as it turns out he has passed away, apparently beaten to death by members of the cult her mother Fen-chueh belonged to though she also claims he had become a drug user. Fen-chueh accepts responsibility for her son’s death, but is said to have been under control of the cult’s crazed leader Chen-miao who according to Chen-yun brainwashed her brother to make him believe he was a bad person. Chen-yun suspects that like her he eventually wanted to leave but was unable to and was subsequently killed. She harbours a degree of guilt that she chose to leave him behind, telling him only that she was leaving to look for their father who had already escaped the cult.
Expecting a baby with her policeman husband, Chen-yun is forced to deal with the fallout from the scandal of her mother’s crime, hounded by press determined to interview her about the case. Chen-yun’s father, technically the plaintiff in the case against Fen-chueh, signals his intention to sever ties with his former wife and advises Chen-yun to do the same while also telling her not to seem too happy which seems like an unfair request when she’s about to give birth to new life. After all as she puts it, life goes on. She hasn’t forgotten about her brother but you can’t go on mourning forever. Nevertheless, despite her earlier animosity in which she hinted that her mother had been abusive in her childhood and refused to say when questioned whether or not she still loved her, Chen-yun finds herself ringing Fen-chueh when she needs someone who can sign papers on her behalf at the hospital while her husband is unavailable. As healing an act as that might seem to be, it also has its share of awkwardness, a nurse accidentally asking a series of tactless questions necessary for the admission forms such as how many siblings Chen-yun has along with other details her mother is assumed to know but does not.
Given what we know of her family background, it is perhaps surprising that Chen-yun continues to allow Fen-cheuh back into her life, even asking her to look after her baby son. Nevertheless in the brief time before Fen-chueh must report to serve her four-year prison sentence, Chen-yun begins to repair their fragile maternal bond, coming to understand her mother a little more now that she has become a mother herself and perhaps learning to forgive her for her role in her brother’s death. “No one taught us how to be parents” Fen-chueh later confesses to Chang in a private interview, having realised that though she thought she was doing the best for her daughter she may only have been causing her harm.
As a new mother Chen-yun cannot help but think of similar questions as she begins to bring up her young son in the midst of her family legacy, taking him with her as she visits her brother’s grave and to visit her mother in the prison so he’ll get to know grandma even while she’s away. Mixing observational footage with brief conversational sessions between a behind the camera Chang and an often emotional Chen-yun, The Reason Why I’m Home focusses not on the tabloid fodder of the crime with its cruel cultists and legacy of abuse but on the slow process of healing as Chen-yun learns to forgive herself and her mother while repairing their fragile family bonds as she does her best to raise her son in love and safety.
The Reason Why I’m Home streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)