Family ties, responsibilities explored in Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell'

Published 10.12.2019 15:56
Updated 20.12.2019 02:17
Zhao Shuzhen left and Awkwafina in a scene from The Farewell. AP Photo
Zhao Shuzhen (left) and Awkwafina in a scene from "The Farewell." (AP Photo)

Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell' won Best Feature Film in the Hilal juror category at the Ajyal Film Festival in Doha. Telling the story of a Chinese-American family, the film tackles issues of belonging and responsibility that resonate across cultures

"The Farewell" begins with a young Chinese-American woman, Billi, on the phone with her grandmother in China as she’s trying to make her way home in New York. Both lie to the other about their circumstances, seemingly so that the person on the other end doesn’t worry. Thus, the ground is set for drama and moral quandary when Billi discovers that Nai Nai, the grandmother, has cancer, and the family has decided not to tell the matriarch about her condition. The family takes the lie to great lengths when they also decide to hold a wedding as a pretext to gather the whole family one last time.

One of the film’s most crucial moments is when Billi tries to confront her father about her grandmother's illness. Her father says – in terms that the anti-essentialist in us may want to contradict – that the crucial difference between Eastern and Western civilizations is that in the East, your life belongs to not just yourself but the whole community and the burden of death is taken on collectively rather than left to the person facing it. Although the self-autonomy advocate in me disagrees with this, I also found myself seeing his point. It also made me think of the exhausted Turkish mothers on public transport having to deal with unsolicited advice about how to dress and feed their child – children, just like the elderly, belong to the whole community, as well.

Having entered the "Eastern" zone of telling members of our community what to do, I kept wanting to shake Billi to straighten her posture as she mopes around the place with hunched shoulders, rather like a 16-year-old who wants to be a cool rapper but whose parents won’t let her. The joke is, naturally, on me, because right after the film, I find out that the actor playing Billi, Awkwafina, is actually a rapper. Awkwafina is a name I’ve heard and wrongly associated with the character in "Bojack Horseman" – and now I know who’s who. The short scenes Billi has in New York City provide the audience with a clear sense of where she is from and where she feels at home. Elsewhere, the film beautifully captures that state of being caught between two languages: Billi can converse very well in Chinese – Awkwafina herself studied Mandarin in Beijing – and then all of a sudden a word or an expression escapes her and she turns to her dad for clarification. It is only through sustained emotional and intellectual effort one can continue to exist in the realms of two languages and cultures at the same time.

Early in the film, there is a face-off that really hits home for Turkish viewers involving the brother who went to the U.S., the brother who went to Japan, and the sister who plans to send her son to the U.S. to study. The branch of the family that takes off for the U.S. is considered – let’s face it, like everywhere else in the world – traitors because they did not stay to deal with the difficulties in their home country. And like everywhere else in the world, this makes the family members who stayed defensive about the home country, and they often joke about the "Americans" at the table. Billi’s mother, struggling with her own bitterness, hits back, pointing out that though they may criticize the U.S. and those who have "defected," the families that stayed are still keen to send their own children to study abroad for better prospects in the future. It is a painful scene and one I have personally witnessed many times.

While we focus on Billi and her family feuds, there’s another story hidden in plain sight in the film: the Japanese bride. We know that the cousin has hastened his marriage to his Japanese girlfriend as an excuse for the whole family to get together, but where is the girl’s family? A Turk notices these things. All Turks have a slot reserved in their brains for wedding politics. What was negotiated to convince her this hasty marriage was a good idea? The viewer is so familiar and focused on the U.S.-Chinese relationship that it is easy to miss the subtle Chinese-Japanese theme running through the film.

Nai Nai, despite her cough, likes to put on a show of good health, walking up the stairs, practicing Tai Chi and trying to get Billi interested in exercise as well. While drinking with her army friends during the wedding, this lovely grandmother, with her soft face, white hair and her attempts to recruit her doctor as a potential suitor for Billi, reveals that she was once in the army herself. What war could they have been talking about, one wonders? One against the Japanese is not unlikely. The uneasy marriage between Japan and China is also made evident when we compare the ways in which Billi and the bride move. In one scene where everyone is retiring to their rooms, we see the bride Aiko walking backward through the doorway, bending several times as she does so. Billi, of course, is hunched, with her back to the others, grumbling as another trying day comes to an end. Billi may not represent Chinese womanhood with her American upbringing but watching other Chinese women walk and talk, including Nai Nai, makes us reconsider notions of a sweeping "oriental femininity."

One of the most touching scenes in the film is the conversation Billi’s mother has with the heroine of the story, Nai Nai’s sister Little Nai Nai, who assures her she is doing fine and paints a rosy picture of life in the provinces after Nai Nai passes away. This scene pulls at your heartstrings, and as the viewer, you wonder if the aunt is also harboring her own secret and is ill herself. And here we have come to the dark heart of the film: if everyone is lying, if that’s how we get by, what are words but mere platitudes?

In the end, the film does not pursue this dark avenue but treats us with scenes from the wedding, people abandoning themselves to the music and tears, celebrating life the only way they know how. It ends with Nai Nai seeing Billi off, and there was not a dry eye in the whole theater. Everyone, no matter their culture, at the Ajyal Film Festival in Doha had experienced leaving someone fragile behind, not sure if you’ll find them there the next time you return. As such, the film is a cautionary tale emphasizing the importance of cherishing the company of our loved ones while we still can.

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