Writer/director Lulu Wang's The Farewell offers a prime case study on why culturally diverse voices are so necessary in our modern Hollywood landscape—especially if we want interesting, original movies instead of endless franchise reboots.
Part of what makes The Farewell so unique is the specificity of its perspective. The story—which is almost entirely true and gained traction as a This American Life segment before being turned into a movie––follows Billi (Awkwafina in a brilliantly reserved performance), a young Chinese-American woman who discovers her Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) is dying from lung cancer. Billi travels back to China to see Nai Nai and say her farewell, but there's a problem: Nai Nai doesn't actually know that she has cancer, and her family is determined not to tell her. As such, the family organizes the wedding of Billi's cousin, Hao Hao, as an excuse for everyone to gather in China.
This sets the stage for an emotionally fraught balancing act whereby Billi and her family need to feign excitement for a celebratory event that mainly exists as an excuse to say goodbye to a beloved family matriarch. But more than that, the premise allows Wang to explore the differences between American and Chinese culture surrounding family, illness, and death.
Writer/Director Lulu WangJessica Lehrman
In American culture, individuality supersedes everything else.
Freedom of choice feels like a necessity, so naturally, we believe that if we're dying, we need to know in order to make proper preparations and plan the remainder of our lives accordingly. Having grown up in America, this is Billi's frame of mind.
But in Chinese culture, family far outweighs the individual. Many Chinese families are tight-knit in a way that American families are not. Oftentimes, Chinese families function as cohesive units wherein everyone, from siblings to cousins to grandparents, live within close proximity to one another and are involved in many elements of each others' lives, from elder care to child-rearing.
From this perspective, freedom of choice is not nearly as important; what's important is not making your family worry. This results in a reliance on "good lies." If you know you're sick, you hide it from your family so they don't worry unnecessarily. And if you know someone else is sick, you bear that burden for them so that they can continue living without stressing about the inevitable. It works out, because you trust your family implicitly to make decisions in your best interest.
In short, the American and Chinese perspectives could not be more opposite. But while many previous films, both American and Chinese, have explored these perspectives individually, it takes the perspective of someone with a foot in both cultures to adequately measure them up alongside one another.
Billi may be American for all intents and purposes, but she spent her early childhood in China and cares deeply for her Nai Nai. Her love for her family, along with pangs of guilt for not embracing her Chinese heritage more, tempers her automatic inclination towards the "righteousness" of Western philosophy. While she beats herself up internally for lying about her Nai Nai's health, she ultimately accepts her family's wishes. Even if she would prefer to be told the truth if she were in her grandma's shoes, she understands that her Nai Nai probably doesn't feel the same way. After all, her Nai Nai is culturally Chinese.
Ultimately, Nai Nai survived––both in the movie and real life. Wang's real-life experience took place over six years ago, when her own Nai Nai was given a three-month life expectancy. She's still alive to this day.
It's hard to discuss a movie as impactful as The Farewell without delving into anecdote.
Watching as a white American with zero foreign cultural ties outside of "looking vaguely Jewish," I approached the matter with a thoroughly American perspective.
At first, I fully agreed with Billi's initial response to her family's proposal: shock and anger. It seemed cruel to let someone die without even giving them a chance to decide how they were going to spend their last few months. But by the end of the movie, I no longer felt so sure. Perhaps my initial outrage at customs unlike my own betrayed a deep-seated sense of cultural superiority. I didn't like that about myself, and I appreciated The Farewell for helping me see things from a different perspective.
My girlfriend, who's half-Chinese (she was born in America, but her mother is a first generation immigrant) had a very different reaction. We had recently seen a Bollywood video that was supposed to take place in New York City. It was funny, because their idea of New York was a giant American stereotype.
"Imagine if almost every movie you ever saw about your own culture was like that Bollywood video," my girlfriend said. "Then you see something like this where everything, from the dialogue to the set decorations, are spot on. It hit close to home."
Wang approaches cultural differences in her film with a softness and complexity that stems from an understanding of both American and Chinese culture but, more importantly, the space in-between, which is occupied only by people who have been torn between the two.
Diverse perspectives such as Wang's offer a limelight to unique cinematic experiences that most people would never have exposure to otherwise. And movies like The Farewell lead to cultural understanding, discussion, and introspection that simply isn't possible without them. They highlight the ongoing need for representation in Hollywood movies, and they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how diversity can be a force for good.
THE FAREWELL Trailer (2019) www.youtube.com