I was not prepared for The Farewell nor did I think white America was either. It was almost exactly a year ago when I dragged myself to watch Crazy Rich Asians, and I thought to myself, yeah, it’s cool that we finally have an Asian Hollywood film, but the storytelling bar was extremely low. I called these films the Phase One movies of Asian-American cinema, an era where we liked them solely because there were Asians in them. Some of these Phase One movies were pretty good like Searching and Always Be My Maybe, but never did they venture into actual Asian diaspora controversy. They were simply stories that could be palette-swapped with any other race and still work. These Phase One movies settled on having an Asian cast and a sprinkle of Asian stuff like food, hobbies (ex: mah-jong, tai chi), exotic backdrops and whatever superficial thing that made them “White America safe”.
So, I’m pleasantly surprised that within just a year, we have a movie like The Farewell, which is a film cut from a very Asian-American cloth. Most pleasantly surprising was that in the theater I was watching, an audience that was mostly non-Asian, loved a movie that didn’t sugarcoat Asian diaspora themes within a white context. Characters (Asian family members) actually spoke Chinese not English because, it’s true, second-gen Asians seldom speak English to their first-gen relatives, let alone do the relatives usually reply in fluent English. The main theme mostly discusses the inner differences and the many nuisances that Asian-Americans feel about their Eastern-thinking counterparts. These differences in Eastern-concepts heavily impact the life of many Asian-Americans, but they’re seldom shown in such a raw fashion to a Western audience. I liked that; it’s not empty calories. If Crazy Rich Asians is MC Hammer, The Farewell is the Tupac of Asian-American films (something Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002 tried to be, but failed to get mainstream acceptance). In The Farewell, I feel a non-Asian audience can come out of the theater learning something deep about Asian diaspora, experience a raw angle on what it’s truly like to be Asian-American.
I’ve previously haven’t heard of Lulu Wang, but she’s clearly a very special, bold director. The Farewell is done very well; there isn’t a single boring scene in it. Where many directors would settle for the standard two people talking shot, Wang would always have something hilarious or interesting happening in a scene. She also understands giving characters (especially side characters) their small nuisances that gradually snowball into very distinct individual-ities, such as the bride and Japanese groom. Wang isn’t lazy. The characters aren’t tropes. She doesn’t take a script and palette-swap people or make generic situations. The humor is quirky in a natural setting, allowing the hilarity to marinate instead of pounding the audience with comedy (vibes of a Wes Anderson film). Things feel organic in The Farewell. The result is a film that shows Chinese people and Chinese thinking/humor in a very authentic display, especially in contrast to an Asian-American contradistinction; something that I constantly see in real life but never in an Asian-American movie until now. The Farewell doesn’t hold a non-Asian audience’s hands and explain things; instead, it uses excellent storytelling and realistic characters to let the audience get involved and figure social issues out. There’s a dual existence where the characters’ struggles are relatable to anyone while also maintaining the distinctive struggles of being Asian in America (and an Asian-American in China). In the end, people care about the characters, along with the topic and plot. It shows that Wang is a masterful new director with a deep sense of film-making craft.
The Farewell revolves around the contradicting nature of Asian-Americans raised in Western individualism forced to heed with the Eastern collectivism logic from their first-gen relatives. The protagonist, Billi (played by Awkwafina), is pressured to withhold information to her grandmother about her grandmother’s terminal cancer. She is told to play along with a lie, that her cousin’s wedding is only that and it’s not really a cover-up for relatives to see the grandma for a final time. As an Asian-American, I am very used to the Eastern concept of embracing white lies and doing things to save face or ease someone’s suffering. Yes, there are doses of that in every culture, but the difference is that in many Asian societies, particularly Chinese, you don’t have a choice. Everyone plays along. The movie does not judge the East v. West viewpoints on this. Instead, it simply explains both sides without lenience and I’m glad it didn’t have a climatic battle where the Asian-American protagonist lectures her Chinese relatives about how wrong their thinking is.
One thing I’ll say about Awkwafina’s handling of the lead role is that it will make people rethink her as a mere comedic talent. There was a lot of skepticism to her casting, including the popular theory that she was cast based on name recognition. While this may be somewhat true (and honestly, all movies depend on big names to sell), I can’t imagine another big-name Asian diaspora actress better suited for the role. I’ve said in another article before that Awkwafina’s charm isn’t because she’s supermodel pretty or pristine perfect, but that she’s a reflection of how most Asian-Americans see in themselves. The way she speaks Chinese in a funny American accent, her goofy mannerisms, her unfiltered honesty in a community that often shuns it gives her higher casting value in Asian diaspora than most of her Asian actress counterparts (say, Constance Wu in comparison). I was surprised she displayed so much acting range in The Farewell and was able to suppress her usual over-the-top comedic presence into a deep, three-dimensional character. I dare compare it a bit to Tom Hanks and how he was able to adapt to more serious roles like Forest Gump and Saving Private Ryan from his past comedic roles of Big and Turner and Hooch. Awkwafina proves she can act here and I hope she lands more serious roles.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater when The Farewell ended, although I was very disappointed in the final scene. (Spoilers ahead) Death is a very powerful thing in storytelling and I’m angry that the movie backed out of a bold decision to ease the emotional impact of what it worked so hard to set up. The grandma dying would have made the movie more powerful, as many people, including myself, have coped with the death of a loved one. The beauty of life is that time together is finite and even in death, deep love for someone doesn’t go away. The revelation that the grandmother didn’t die cheapens things and perhaps even suggests that the Western outlook of Billi was even correct. I wasn’t happy with Wang’s decision on including that last scene. Otherwise, the movie is perfect and it successfully pulls in the audience in both a storytelling level and a cultural exchange one. The Farewell is a bold and authentically Asian-American movie I cannot recommend enough. I hope the word-of-mouth continues, because our community needs deeper, non-Phase One Asian diaspora movies like this.
Like Asian-American stories? Please consider giving my novel Asians Don’t Date a chance. Now available on Amazon. Thank you.