Good Lies and Goodbyes: Thoughts after The Farewell
By Yong Shu Hoong
As the preview screening of The Farewell wrapped up, I could discern discreet sounds of sniffling around me in the darkness of the crowded cinema hall. To be honest, I was also wet-eyed: I found myself missing my own grandmother who passed away more than two decades ago.
Credit goes to Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen, who so naturalistically portrays the doting but feisty grandmother of protagonist Billi (rapper-actress Awkwafina, from Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, in her first major "serious" role). For Zhao, already famous in China as a television actress, this would only be her first international film role. But critics have labelled her a scene-stealing "breakout star" for her performance.
I suppose this new film by Chinese-American writer-director Lulu Wang can be considered sentimental – and nostalgic, for those missing their already-departed mothers or grandmothers – but at least it is a slice of sincere storytelling, generally free of melodrama, that was drawn from Wang's real-life experiences. Prefaced at the start of the film that it is "based on an actual lie", The Farewell is all about the repression of emotions and keeping up appearances, as the family in the story makes sure that Nai Nai (Chinese for grandmother) is not told of her terminal lung cancer. And that is what makes the story so heartrending and, in some ways, painful to watch, as Billi struggles with keeping the secret. As someone who has moved from China with her parents to the United States at the age of six, she is aware that in her adoptive country, such a lie – no matter how white it might be – would be illegal.
Just as Billi is an alter ego for Wang (also born in China before leaving for the US at six), the film's screenplay mirrors the way the director's grandmother, in 2013 (when Wang was editing her debut feature, Posthumous), suffered a similar health scare, which also resulted in her parents and relatives deciding to keep her in the dark concerning her terminal condition. Wang had first addressed these family events in a 2016 episode entitled 'What You Don't Know' on This American Life, a popular weekly public radio programme and podcast. Now that I think about it, wasn't this notion of "ignorance is bliss" also something that was expected (though not verbally insisted upon) in the case of my grandmother, when she was first diagnosed of colon cancer?
As the story of The Farewell begins in New York City, Billi is initially forbidden by his parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) to accompany them to Changchun, in Northeast China, for a final family reunion with Nai Nai, because she is deemed as "too emotional". But she pops up at Nai Nai's home anyway, surprising everyone, claiming that she couldn't miss her cousin Hao Hao's wedding – an excuse orchestrated by the family for the gathering.
Throughout the film, Billi is reminded repeatedly not to tell Nai Nai the truth. She is assured that Nai Nai will only be told at the last possible moment, and that it is an act of kindness, of filial piety, when family members take on the emotional burden on behalf of the ailing matriarch.
As Nai Nai begins planning the big fat Chinese wedding of her grandson, and with much gusto and delight too, Billi takes every opportunity to tag along and bond with her. There is bittersweet comedy in the way Hao Hao (whose family migrated to Japan) awkwardly goes through the motion with a Japanese girlfriend he has only known for three months. Expect also some small dosage of Asian exoticising, with a scene of material objects made of paper being burnt for the dead, as well as the TCM practice of cupping during another scene in a spa.
But the subtle emotional scenes work best: Billi being fed by Nai Nai at the dining table; Billi being given money by Nai Nai, who worries about her living alone in New York as a struggling writer; Billi learning qigong moves from Nai Nai, who claims that the exercise keeps her healthy at such a ripe age. These are scenes that anyone with doting grandparents can identify with. (My grandmother wasn't quite as outspoken as Nai Nai, but she certainly shared a universal trait with other Chinese grandmothers of always stuffing their grandchildren with food.)
As much as I like the film, one initial thing I was wondering about was: wouldn't it be more interesting for the film to play up Billi's American ways, replete with ideals of independence and freedom, so that there would be more fireworks as she rubs against her elders entrenched in their Chinese ideas and traditions? Or, perhaps, to play up the reverse culture shock during Billi's trip to China, to milk the sense of conflict more. Later I conceded this would have distracted from what lies at the core of the story: the underlying tension and Chinese guilt over always coming up short in terms of filial duty and the inability to adequately express the unspoken. So I can now understand why it would be more apt for Awkwafina to underplay her role, than to inject more effusiveness and swagger. In that process, it's a more powerful performance by the actress who was born Nora Lum in the New York City borough of Queens and, incidentally, raised mainly by her grandmother, after her mother died when she was four.
In the production notes issued by the film distributor, A24, Billi is described as being in a "state of dismayed powerlessness" for much of the film. Wang explains how she likes that Billi breaks all the standard rules for lead characters who "are supposed to take action, but Billi's journey is actually about becoming inactive. Billi wants to change the situation, but she can't change it, and she has to accept that. So, one of my biggest challenges was how to craft a constant dramatic tension around that, so that you really feel that pressure of what it's like getting up every day desperately wanting to tell your grandmother the one thing you can't tell her."
Another mental note I've made about the film: the major male characters here seem to take a backseat to their female counterparts. At this juncture, I want to also praise Lin for her memorable turn as Billi's stern mother. Aside from the hurtful reprimands she has no qualms dispensing to Billi, the dinner-table scene where Lin's character crosses swords with other family members with biting sarcasm and innuendos is particularly impressive – it's the stayer-quitter, patriot-opportunist argument that Singaporeans also grapple with, where the characters in the scene spar over familial ties, loyalty and national identity, versus the allure of greener pastures abroad.
With the success of last year's Crazy Rich Asians (directed by Jon M. Chu with total worldwide gross of US$238 million) and the John Cho starrer Searching (directed by Aneesh Chaganty, with total worldwide gross of US$75 million against a modest production budget), it's heartening to see more Asian-American representations in mainstream and indie films – from Netflix's Always Be My Maybe (2019) with Ali Wong and Randall Park, to Marvel's Shang-Chi, the planned first Asian-led superhero film. With The Farewell gaining critical acclaim, and even talk of Oscar buzz, it's appropriate to take a look back at some notable Chinese-American films that have come out in the past.
The 1993 successful adaptation of Amy Tan's bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, probably evokes top-of-mind awareness, with its interlacing ruminations on mother-daughter relationships. But the more indie-spirited films by director Wayne Wang (before and after Joy Luck) are well worth watching. Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) is based on the novel of the same name by Louis Chu (1915–1970), who emigrated from Toishan in China to New Jersey, and is now considered a pioneer of Asian-American literature. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007) is another lit-to-screen adaptation, this time of a short story by Yiyun Li, a Beijing native who moved to the US in 1996.
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) by Justin Lin (famous for his work for The Fast and the Furious franchise), on the other hand, explores how Asian-American youths embrace a life of crime and excesses out of boredom. His filmography also boasts a hilarious mockumentary, Finishing the Game (2007), which imagines the scenario of actors and martial artists auditioning to stand-in for Bruce Lee, after his 1973 death, to complete his last film, Game of Death.
Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee is renowned for the wuxia masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and other critical Hollywood successes like The Ice Storm (1997) and Life of Pi (2012), before hitting a recent rough patch with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016). Currently based in the US, he has also made a smaller film called The Wedding Banquet (1993), which in some ways reminds me of The Farewell's premise, where a celebratory occasion is used to mask a web of lies and deception. Both Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Lee's Pushing Hands (1991) showcase Chinese protagonists who find themselves "fish out of water" in the US, having to adapt to the norms of a strange new world, while Billi in The Farewell quietly observes and adjusts, in sputters of rusty Mandarin, to what she considers "strange" ways of a modern China.
The Farewell might not be the best film by a Chinese-American filmmaker over the past couple of years (for me, that accolade goes to journalist-turned-filmmaker Cathy Yan's set-in-China art-house debut, Dead Pigs, but that is another review for another day), but it strikes the right chords overall with exemplary acting and a tight script, infused with understated but heartfelt emotions that are balanced with good humour.
The thing about Chinese-American films – or, if you widen the definition to include, all Asian-American films – is that they usually carry the tropes of food and family that we viewers in Asian cities are already well familiar with. What the filmmakers play up as novelty to American or Western eyes, we may think it's no big deal, so the connection that we seek with these films would be on a deeper level. Of course, for us, especially if one is part of a country's majority race, there is novelty in seeing how the Chinese, for example, in America is reduced to a minority facing obstacles of discrimination, displacement and disillusion. That can hopefully strengthen the feeling of empathy in our everyday lives towards other minority groups in our midst – and this is a hypothesis that can be tested, as we look forward to more Asian-American films in the pipeline.QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019