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“The Farewell” Gets Intimate with the Gaps Between Being Asian, Being Chinese, and Being American

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After stunning at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, The Farewell opened in select theaters across the US on July 12, and received a nationwide release last Friday, August 2. The film is 32-year-old Chinese-American director Lulu Wang’s second feature, and is “based on an actual lie.”

The Farewell tells the story of Wang’s own family: of how they withheld her grandmother’s lung cancer diagnosis from herself, and of the wedding they put on as a pretense to gather the entire family for her grandmother’s final days. (Spoiler: Wang’s real-life grandma actually survived her cancer.) The film stars Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians (and soon-to-come Shang-Chi) fame as main character Billi, a stand-in for Wang. The Farewell has been hailed as the “year’s best film,” even surpassing Avengers: Endgame on per-screen average, and is slated for a release in mainland China sometime later this year.

While watching the The Farewell, Teen Sheng writes in Plan A Magazine that he experienced a sudden “perceptual shift”, realizing that: “If there were a movie of my own life, that movie would mostly be in Chinese. The strangers in the audience would clearly see it as a foreign film.”

It wasn’t until I read those lines that I sucked in a sharp breath — I, too, realized what had hit me so squarely in the chest after watching the film, what had left me feeling like I was floating rather than walking down the street. In the theater, I’d sat smack center back and I had gone alone — yet, despite all my close attention and dedication (tissues, check; water, check; nobody next to me, check), I hadn’t found the words to express my newfound sense of enlarged perspective.

“That a movie about my life would have to be in Chinese is an odd and unexpected realization, because I’ve lived my entire life in America speaking English,” Sheng continues in the same review of the film. “But the cumulative influence of my parents, relatives, friends, romantic partners… is just so outsize in relative emotional resonance to the mundane but vastly more parts I live in English.”

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That others might see my life as a foreign film: this is the tension that throbs at the heart of The Farewell. (To borrow Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix’s social media byline: too foreign for here, too foreign for home.)

The Farewell deftly navigates the ways Asian-Americans struggle with their own foreignness wherever they go, and particularly with notions of collectivism that run counter in their “Eastern” and “Western” heritages. The film pivots on a powerful line delivered, a bit condescendingly, by Billi’s uncle Haibin in the middle of the night in a worn-out hotel bar:

“You [as a Westerner] think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.”

Likewise, the film reminds us that verbal language — what we in the West are so used to — is only a part of a whole. Writing precisely about this in The New York Times, Brian Chen says: “It isn’t that Asians avoid difficult topics… But rather that Asians tend to have indirect communication. In indirect communication, also known as high-context communication, what’s not said is more important than what is said… ‘show, don’t tell.’”

Awkwafina with Diana Lin in The Farewell

In the silent spaces of The Farewell, we feel Billi’s chin settling on her mother’s shoulder. We hear Nai Nai’s (grandma’s) every touch. We understand cousin Hao Hao’s wordless sobbing at his own wedding. This vocabulary — this language of bodies — relies heavily on non-verbal cues. And as an Asian-American, “maybe all I’ll ever have is secondhand understanding, and that’s the best I can do,” writes Chen in the Times.

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When I spoke with Allyson Toy — an old friend of Awkwafina’s, a long-time force for Asian-Americans in entertainment, and a former staffer here at RADII — she told me that she’d also gone alone to the movie, “so no one could see [her] ugly cry.” Toy, whose family is several generations Chinese-American, had just moved back to the States after two years of living and working in Shanghai. She recalled how well The Farewell handled the details of living in China today: “It was so spot-on… And it all comes out in the little details. The elevator breaking at the hotel… so many cigarettes… people playing mah-jong at the restaurant or massage parlor.”

But Toy also points to another category of collectivism that The Farewell interrogates: that of being Chinese-American, specifically, within the collective Asian-American identity.

“Living in China, one of the things I missed most was the solidarity between Asian-Americans of all different backgrounds,” she says. “Going to mainland China was my first time being a part of a majority, where everyone looked like me.”

My Bui, a Vietnamese-American who works in the education nonprofit field and in advocacy for first-generation/low-income students, told me that she loved the film because of the universality of its family themes, and that she still found echoes of Vietnam in its very Chinese-specific story and shots: in the awkward family dinners, the revelry of the wedding, the imagery of industrialization blanketing the landscape.

the farewell awkwafina lulu wang wedding

Zhao Shuzhen, Chan Han, and Aoi Mizuhara in The Farewell

She agrees with the criticism that Hollywood continues to promote East Asian stories and protagonists at the expense of Southeast Asian representation, and she’s still waiting for the day that Southeast Asians make their big-screen debut. “When we [as Asians] have been deprived for so long, everything feels like a gain,” says Bui. “We should be able to complain about the scraps Hollywood is giving us and not just be grateful we got it in the first place… Being grateful is being complacent so that media doesn’t actually have to try to change.”

Still, Bui notes that The Farewell stands out in the limited canon of Asian-American films because of its “simple” and “specific” nature. “It was an honest story of one family’s experience,” she says. “A year ago, we got Crazy Rich Asians, and now we have The Farewell… sometimes, we need imperfect movies to open up the space for the stories we’re still missing.”

Toy remembers seeing Crazy Rich Asians in China with her friends and colleagues last year, more than half a year after its US release. The theater was less than half full, and the jokes fell flat on the Chinese audience. In the end, the film was an utter flop in China. How will The Farewell hold up if it opens in mainland China?

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It’s hard to say, and unfair to predict. But one element gives us a starting point: the film’s Chinese title, Bie Gaosu Ta (别告诉她; “don’t tell her”), emphasizes its plot over style or emotional resonance. This might be reasonable, given what a Chinese audience will likely find absurd about the film: Why is Billi so shocked, and why does she think it’s such a good idea to tell her grandmother? The baseline reaction among Chinese viewers might be the exact reverse of what so many American audiences found shocking, namely that withholding diagnoses is even acceptable in Chinese society.

The American audience I watched the film with couldn’t stop laughing at the scene where the hotel clerk brings Billi and her luggage up to her room. The clerk was a classically annoying, genuinely curious archetype, asking Billi, “Where are you from? Oh, America? What is it like there? What do your parents do? Which do you prefer, China or America?” — heedless of Billi’s tired body language, her reluctant answers.

I also laughed — to the point that I wanted to cry. Not only because I knew so intimately Billi’s emotional and mental fatigue (jetlag, culture shock, grief), but because I knew that line of questioning so intimately. I thought of a stranger who approached me once in Beijing, asking, “Why aren’t you in school? Shouldn’t you be in school? Where are you from? What’s America like? What did you study in school? How much do you weigh?” — expecting truthful answers. Wang’s China and her Chinese characters aren’t caricatures — the scene is funny because it reflects reality.

Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Lu Hong, Chan Han, and Aoi Mizuhara in The Farewell (photo: Nick West)

Toy is hopeful that The Farewell, being the realistic and culturally-informed story that it is, humanizes the China where it takes place, and gives others a place to start “seeing in” to modern China. “Aside from the [Western] media being this echo chamber of talking about China like it’s still the Cold War, the censorship [in China] really can work both ways,” says Toy.

“It’s less challenging for people in China to see outside of China than it is, in a way, for people outside of China to see in. They have no idea how to do it. There’s linguistic barriers, cultural barriers… all sorts of things.”

Which brings us  back to the last of the hotel clerk’s questions, the one which all others build to: “Which one do you prefer — which one is better? China or America?” To which Billi replies with the only true answer she has: “It’s different.”

“But, no, really,” says the clerk. “America must still be better, right? You must like it better, right?”

“It’s just different,” Billi reiterates.

It’s just different. When she finally closes the door, when she is finally alone, I feel the truth and exhaustion of that all over again. It’s just different. That second-hand experience! What else could she — could we — ever say? Oceans lie in between and words can only do so much. The comfort is in all the negative space, the non-verbal cues. What we show each other rather than what we say.

Images courtesy of A24

Lavinia Liang
Lavinia Liang is a writer and journalist. Her nonfiction has been published in TIME, The Atlantic, Fortune, Roads & Kingdoms, The South China Morning Post, and elsewhere. You can find her on social media @lavinianshores.