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Review: “The Farewell” Reveals Life’s Necessary Illusions

Asian-American critic Teen Sheng sees Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" as remarkable, humanistic, and resonant at a deeply personal level.

By , 19 Jul 19 07:01 UTC
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Image courtesy of A24.

Watching Lulu Wang’s The Farewell caused in me a perceptual shift, a small yet sudden adjustment to how I pay attention to things. The effect lingers on after the film ends, as if it has a half-life.

Only a handful of films have had this effect, including Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. They all happen to be films from Asia. But only through The Farewell was I able to articulate something about the perceptual shift.

I watched the film during a weekday evening showing at the Angelika theater near NYU. The surprisingly large audience was mostly white with a substantial minority of East Asian looking people in their 20’s. Some men, but mostly women. Unlike most “cross cultural” films involving Asian-Americans, I surprisingly felt no anxiety about the proceedings. The premium cinematography and Wang’s direction matters, but above all it’s that The Farewell is a serious drama, not a flimsy comedy. These upper crusty young people, self-selected whites and Asians, have come to pay artful respect to a film that they have heard buzz about, and it is a buzz they want to be a part of. We weren’t there to just laugh for reasons.

The film begins with images and scenes that I immediately recognize. But I don’t know from where.

Billi (Awkafina, real name Nora Lum) has proficient Americanized Mandarin, and it is not played for laughs. Instead, as with John Cho and Steven Yeun’s recent turns speaking Americanized Korean on film, it is meant to deepen and complicate her character. Billi has a frustrated relationship with her mother Jian. Played by Chinese-Australian actress Diana Lin, she gives the most complete and delicate performance. Jian has a distinct coarseness that Chinese women sometimes can have—like my mother—detectable in everything from her drab and practical clothing choices, to her willingness to inflict small cruelties. First-generation Chinese women in America as a rule are not admired for this type of coarseness in the way a similar American “fierceness” is admired for more assimilated women. It’s a deep and unexamined disappointment about Chinese life in America, this hypocritical and racist undervaluing. But in The Farewell, Jian’s coarseness is given its full complexity. It can’t easily be put it into words; I had to see it on film to recognize it.

Though Billi and her mother fail to open up emotional channels, Billi retains such a connection with her grandmother. They talk on the phone regularly (an unrelatable experience for me), but she almost never gets to see her in person. The connection is there, but it’s very low bandwidth.

This specific and peculiar connection between a granddaughter and grandmother also shows up in the aforementioned Yi Yi, and it also existed between my sister and our grandmother. The scene where the two say goodbye for possibly the last time ripped open a memory of the same uncertain farewell between my sister and our grandmother, at Reagan National Airport. Also eerily similar to a scene in The Farewell, my sister remembered being visited by a bird on the day of my grandmother’s passing.

Image courtesy of A24.

Watching The Farewell for me was like having my memories drawn, animated, and distorted by some imperfect yet miraculous mind-reading software. The output is not quite right, but it’s immediately recognizable. Aspects of those memories are then re-examined, from different perspectives. New information about yourself, once hidden, is revealed indirectly.

This is when the small but meaningful epiphany I mentioned in the beginning was triggered: 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. Yet I feel no anxiety about this.

(Perhaps an odd thing to note here, but feelings of anxiety and “cringe” abound in Asian-Americans when watching what is now called “Asian-American media representation.”)

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. But the cumulative influence of my parents, relatives, friends, romantic partners, so much of it being in Chinese, mostly understood but neither completely nor precisely—is just so outsize in relative emotional resonance to the mundane but vastly more parts I live in English. To really access the most interior parts of my memories, it would almost have to be articulated in Mandarin. And I just don’t have the vocabulary to describe what’s inside there. It’s a perpetual mystery, obscured because of an undersized and imprecise vocabulary.

I sit up straighter and lean in. I intentionally stroke my chin. This seems to me a realization that might have real implications, but first I needed to just watch the film all the way. One peculiar thing I notice—although the film is almost entirely in Mandarin, it is the simple and vernacular Mandarin of family life which most second-generation Chinese-Americans can understand without resorting to subtitles.

The Farewell is a film constructed from the memories of its writer and director. The film is autobiographical, a fact revealed in the title card which reads “[t]he following is based on an actual lie.” It is Lulu Wang’s real-life story about her real-life grandmother on which the film is based. There is a refractive view of a reality that can be achieved through Wang’s film.

Image courtesy of A24.

What I see is so familiar and so troubling.

To describe it in full is to simply describe the movie itself. Instead I’ll just describe Awkafina’s expressions. I’m thinking of her face during a dimly lit scene, in the bar of their flimsy tourist hotel. The bar is empty except for Billi, her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma), and her uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jiang). Gazing out at the sodium-lit streets, Haibin lectures his American black-sheep niece about why they must hide the fact of cancer from her grandmother. They have arranged a fictional wedding to provide her the comforting illusion that she will witness her first grandson getting married.

Haibin tells her that she doesn’t approve of this plan, and that she passes judgement on it, because she is an American who believes her life belongs only to her. In contrast, real “Easterners” (his word choice hinting at the scope of this accusation) see their life as being part of a greater whole.

These are actors playing actors taking off their personas backstage, as the lone audience member dozes off during an intermission. Haibin’s intolerance of Billi’s self-centeredness can no longer hide itself. What he says about her is devastating and true. But Billi’s pained and scornful expression says everything. She didn’t choose to be like this, yet she must suffer such judgements and cruelties from her own relatives. As the child of immigrants, she was unwillingly torn away from “the greater whole” to which she secretly hangs onto through calls with her grandmother. At a fundamental and incontrovertible level, this is all her parents’ fault.

The Farewell isn’t really about a lie. What the family is doing is not so much lying, as it is constructing an elaborate and necessary illusion to sustain all of their tenuous connections to some greater whole. The pain and frustration that abounds among the family is often expressed in in-artful ways, but The Farewell achieves a remarkable and humanistic rendering of it all.

This article was originally published in Plan A Magazine, an examination of Asian-American online culture.

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The Farewell—USA. Dialogue in English and Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Lulu Wang. First released July 2019. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes. Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, and Chen Hanwei.


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