‘The Farewell’: A cultural tale written in the universal language of love

A promotional poster for The Farewell is shown. via A24

Most of the time, revolutions take shape slowly and identify themselves as time flows. “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) carved out a space for Asian American films in the Hollywood empire. The role the romantic comedy played in the demarginalization process of Asian filmmakers in the American film industry is undeniable, given the attention the film attracted. However, “Crazy Rich Asians” achieved this in a rather literal and shallow way of simply introducing Asian actors into Hollywood; the film is still culturally Western mainstream at its core. On the other hand, its successor in the genre of popular film starring Asian Americans a year later, “The Farewell” (2019), brings the conversation of Asian representation in American media to a deeper, cultural level by exploring the Chinese understanding of family and love while reflecting recent socioeconomic changes in Chinese society.

“The Farewell” is directed by Lulu Wang and features Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yongbo Jiang, Han Chen and Aoi Mizuhara in its main cast. The film tells a true story of a Chinese family’s benign lie. In the film, Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family learns that her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) has late-stage lung cancer and does not have much time left. Billi’s parents, who are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., and her uncle, who has immigrated to Japan, along with their other siblings, decide to withhold Billi’s grandmother’s health status from her and to use the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao as an excuse for the whole family to convene and see her grandmother for the last time. 

The simultaneously comedic and solemn ambience that persists throughout “The Farewell” mirrors the contrasting light-heartedness of Billi’s grandmother and the emotional burden the family bears for her. Such mental asymmetry peaks during Hao Hao’s wedding. After the wedding ceremony, the family members gather and start to play a drinking game. The game produces a funny visual effect as participating members flap their arms to imitate birds. Hao Hao consecutively loses and therefore drinks; perhaps in part by the effects of alcohol, he eventually starts to weep. The filmmaker’s choice of soundtrack — an opera-styled song — enhances the absurdity of a young groom crying inconsolably at his own wedding against the background of a jolly and bustling crowd. The awkward juxtaposition of visual, narrative and auditory cues in this scene speaks to the emotional difficulty of maintaining their lie to the family matriarch by subduing their anxiety and putting on a cheerful performance. Like Billi’s uncle Haibin says in one scene, by lying to the grandmother, the family shares her pain and essentially conducts an act of love. 

“The Farewell” also refers to a culture shock that China experienced in the face of modernity. Billi’s family exemplifies a globalization-induced discontinuity in Chinese culture spanning generations from Baby Boomers to Gen Z. The focus of western populist critics of international trade today, China had been shocked culturally by globalization years earlier as the phenomenon disrupted the Chinese people’s ability and incentive to uphold their traditions. Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, China engaged with the international community through reforms such as Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy and the Sino-US rapprochement. Glimpses into capitalist prosperity started a fetishization of the West in China. “The Farewell” quite explicitly refers to this cultural transformation in the staircase scene of Billi and a bellhop. While helping Billi carry her luggage up the staircase, the curious bellhop continuously asks the young second-generation American questions regarding life in America. When they finally arrive in Billi’s room, the bellhop, showing no sign of leaving immediately,  asks Billi which country is better: China or the U.S. Unsatisfied with Billi’s answer that the two are simply different, the bellhop answers himself saying that the U.S. is better.

Reasonably, the “Era of Good Feelings” for the West witnessed a still expanding Chinese diaspora. It has grown fashionable among the new Chinese middle class to send their children to study abroad. Many of these students stay in the countries where they obtained their education for work after graduation, some of them eventually obtaining citizenship. “The Farewell” addresses this trend with Billi’s comment that her aunt’s determination to send her son to study abroad in the U.S., that she will do so despite the consequential possibility that he might not move back home after college and remain separated from his parents in the long run. While such an outcome might only seem natural for a Western audience, it shatters the traditional Chinese virtue of serving the elderly by maintaining close-knit intergenerational families. Billi’s parents and uncle Haibin, having respectively emigrated to the U.S. and Japan, illustrate such recent breakdown of traditional family structure in China. The fact that the family needs a special occasion like Hao Hao’s wedding as an “excuse” to justify them all being home testifies to the rarity of their family unions.

“The Farewell” frames a cultural story in the universal languages of love and responsibility, bridging the Chinese, Asian American and the rest of the Western society.


Summary

"The Farewell" deftly balances comedy and solemnity to provide a heartfelt bridging of cultures.

4 stars
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