The first time I watched the trailer of The Farewell this past summer, I immediately began looking forward to the release of a movie that would parallel two viewpoints that, despite being very current, are still quite underrepresented in cinema: third-culture experiences and some of East Asian (in this case China) values’ nuances. Although the premise of the movie was very promising, I found myself walking out of the theatre feeling disappointed. Yes, the movie was critically acclaimed, but it is important to keep in mind that most critics watched the movie from a Westernised point of view.
The movie follows a Chinese-born American girl, Billi (played by actress and rapper Awkwafina), who has spent almost her entire life in the United States. She has a strong relationship with her grandmother Nainai (Mandarin for paternal grandmother) despite being thousands of miles apart from her. The plot of the movie focuses on Nainai’s sudden cancer diagnosis that the entire family decides to hide from her, as some families in China choose to not reveal or sugarcoat fatal prognoses to the elderly. Under the excuse of a cousin’s wedding in China, the family decides to reunite and visit Nainai for what may be the last time.
Billi, despite struggling financially and having just gotten rejected from a writing fellowship, also flies over to Asia to visit, against her parents’ wishes. This is because the values Billi had retained from living in the United States have allowed her to act less stoical than everyone else in her Chinese family and as a result is believed by her parents to be more prone to slip out the truth to Nainai. The constant internal conflict seen throughout the movie is that Billi feels it is dishonest not to be sincere to Nainai about her own health.
The entire storyline is semi-autobiographical and based on director Lulu Wang’s own experiences as she described on the radio show This American Life:
“(…) I wanted to talk with my grandmother, comfort her. I wanted to grieve with her in the way that seems natural when someone you love is dying. But my mom– she’s the one who called me to give me the bad news– quickly informed me that what I wanted, that what I thought was the right thing to do, would not be permitted and that I would have no say in the matter. I was stunned.”
The movie’s universal appeal is partly due to its engaging premise, since family is a ubiquitous and easily relatable theme. It was an easy and fun watch: the overall pacing of the story flowed well, a considerable portion of the acting was convincing, it made me want to call my grandmother more often (thanks to the touching and endearing scenes between Nainai and Billi). The storyline reminded me that every third-culture kid has a different experience in staying connected to their heritage. For instance, my upbringing, in contrast to Billi’s, was relatively culturally balanced as I got to live in Europe for around the same amount of time as I did in China and I never yielded to the pressure of having to ‘pick sides’ in order to define my identity. That being said, despite the few giggles I had from the movie, I felt let down.
I partly empathize with the movie’s authenticity in the sense that it was directed by someone who is Chinese-American herself, but I didn’t feel that she had an in-depth understanding of Chinese history and culture when representing it.
The Farewell lacked subtleness. Although I admired and appreciated its attempt to juggle between addressing heavy subject matters and displaying Chinese culture, it often seemed as if the director wanted to showcase as many traditions as casually possible. While I’m not especially critical of the motive itself, there were too many clichés such as the extensive Chinese massage scene, which felt forced and came off as very… kitsch, for a lack of better words.
If it means anything, despite the movie being filmed in Beiijng, a place I grew up in during some of the formative years of my life, none of the elements shown felt relatable, distinct to the city, nor made me miss it. I could only interpret the appeal of showing these flashy scenes as a lazy way to try making the audience understand the cultural shock Billi was going through going back.
There was a lack of nuance in the process of exploring the theme of ‘East versus the West’ throughout the movie.
The movie often left the audience the space to assume that everything represented in the movie is unequivocal in Chinese culture. While the film was meant to be revelatory on the struggles of growing up in-between the East and the West, the overall script was shallow. In scenes that showed the whole family spending time together, conversations on cultural differences were dully surface-leveled. There was a sequence which showed the family argue about the pros and cons of moving to the United States, but it wasn’t close to being extensive and if anything only brushed over the grey areas was would actually be interesting to hear about. What about the parents’ experiences as first-generation immigrants? What about Billi’s process in forming her identity?
The only phrase that really stuck with me out of the whole movie is from when Billi’s uncle Haibin (played by Jiang Yongbo) says: “you think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” It looked like the director was trying to cater to a Western audience by distilling such heavy topic matters into oversimplified conversations.
Even more uninspiring to me was the lack of character development throughout the movie. There is no depth to the characters, a noticeable absence of the male figures’ personalities and it is hard to see the supposed familial “part of a whole” bond everyone has — the reunions are constantly comprised of rigid and unconnected small-talk. Billi, the only character raised in the U.S., is portrayed most humanely simply because she is given more screen time. Yet even then, the movie ends without showing what the experience may have taught her.
Lastly, leaving alone the fact that it isn’t as common nor extreme as the movie portrays it to be to lie to elders who are ill in China (side-note: wouldn’t have Nainai noticed the entire ordeal if the phenomenon were that common? After all, she’s been around the block a few times), the film kept repeating and obviously reminding what from the get-go was supposed to be a tacit agreement: that Nainai is dying and no one should tell her.
Although I do not hold a very favourable opinion of The Farewell, I am still glad that the movie is out there. I see it as a first step towards understanding the experiences of third-culture kids as well as the contrasting principles between different cultures which don’t always have to put one in the wrong. To anyone who wants to see it, I would still encourage them to do so, but not to use it as an educational tool on the vastness of Chinese culture.
Overall Rating: 3/5
Featured Image: A24