When released over 25 years ago in 1993, Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club was considered a triumph, the first film to realize the dream of Asian and Asian-American representation in Hollywood. Rather than predict a change in course, however, it remained an anomaly. Virtually no American films comparably invested in the sorts of cross-cultural divides chronicled in Wang’s saga of mother-daughter rifts and continuities saw the light of day, until last year’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and more significantly, Lulu Wang’s Sundance breakout, The Farewell.
Not that world cinema lacked insights on the growing pains of the immigrant experience, and the East-West, tradition versus modernity conflicts that comprise the thematic meat of similarly charted family dramas. The United States saw a “70 percent increase in the population [of Asians] from 1980 to 1988,” according to a New York Times report, and Chinese immigrants made up a significant portion. The success of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club in 1989, and that of the film version some years later, speaks to this diaspora, though filmmakers in Hong Kong and Taiwan (which has economic and cultural roots in the mainland, while being historically the beneficiary of greater funding and artistic freedom) were quick to issue their own interpretations of the increasingly porous relationship with the U.S., often through the focal point of New York City. Consider Hong Kong filmmaker Mabel Cheung’s “migration” trilogy, The Illegal Immigrant (1985), Eight Tales of Gold (1989), and the popular middle-entry, An Autumn’s Tale (1987), an endearing, if corny, romantic comedy about dashed American ideals and the ramshackle tenement lifestyles of young Chinese, starring a young, goonish Chow Yun-fat. All three films consider Chinatown as an immigrant community, the folks within struggling with and adapting to the big city, enamored with and broken down by its demands. In Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985), Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s character, a former little leaguer, longingly recollects a recent trip to Los Angeles and considers moving permanently to the States (though American culture, music, iconography has already inundated Taipei). And Ang Lee’s first two films, Pushing Hands (1991) and The Wedding Banquet (1993), about the tensions between assimilated younger Chinese immigrants and their non-acclimated parents in New York City, provide early reference points as well.
The Farewell also begins in New York City, the home of Wang proxy Billi, played by Brooklyn rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina. Like Wang, Billi was born in China but is as indistinguishably American as any native born person, having immigrated to the United States at an early age with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). It’s been years since Billi has been back to her hometown of Changchun, China, where her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao)—Mandarin for paternal grandma—lives with her younger sister and male flatmate. Despite the distance, Billi and Nai Nai exhibit a warm, easy-going rapport in the film’s opening phone conversation, which suggests these sorts of calls are habitual, a hint of sentimental fantasy that ultimately flattens Billi as an adoring granddaughter. For as pure and tender as their relationship seems to be, it's also not the sort that acknowledges unpleasantness of any kind: Nai Nai warns Billi to look out while she’s on the streets should anyone approach to try and steal her earrings, but Billi (falsely) explains she’s at home with friends, and she’s not wearing any. Meanwhile, Nai Nai is at the hospital awaiting results, but tells her granddaughter she’s merely at her sister’s house. They’re gentle lies, the sorts you tell people you love to save them from burden or destined misunderstanding. The Farewell begins with lies more easily swallowed and moves into tell-tale heart territory in its peddling of the conceit that love may sometimes take unrecognizable forms, twisted further by glitches in translation, linguistic, cultural, or otherwise.
Nai Nai’s diagnosis is lung cancer, and a few months to live. But her younger sister is the first one to hear about it, and rather than reveal the truth, she decides to conceal it, a lie that the rest of the family promises to uphold. It’s not an uncommon practice in China; in fact, it’s something Nai Nai herself did with her now-dead husband. What causes death is not the disease, according to Chinese wisdom, it's the fear that accompanies it. Under the guise of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of a few months, the family reunites one last time in Changchun to give Nai Nai a send-off, though Billi, thoroughly Americanized and consequently the least equipped at stifling her emotions, struggles to keep up the ruse. As New Yorker critic Anthony Lane describes, the conflict is one of “collective deceit,” of how the deceivers fool the deceived and in the process break down. It’s a concept that should hearken to Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, about a gay Taiwanese man who enters into a sham marriage with his female tenant in order to appease his parents. From this vantage point, Wang (and Lee) stakes out humor within pathos, and harvests joy from conditions of ignorance as Billi accompanies her grandmother, who rushes around the city, planning for the big wedding while making lively quips and imparting wisdom to her somber granddaughter.
Though Wang captures the family as an intimate, holistic structure within a room or around a table with still, encompassing wide shots, little attention is given to individual characters (or relationships) other than Billi and Nai Nai, which stifles the teased geographical and generational complexities. Though The Farewell should bring to mind the unexpected kinship between a (much more egregiously) abandoned grandmother and an urbanized grandchild in Sylvia Chang’s melodrama Love Education (2017), it never reaches the emotional parameters of Chang’s three-generation epic, despite mapping out a comparable family constellation.
Nai Nai remains in Changchun (considered the “Detroit of China” as a hub for the national automobile industry), while her two sons have married and built lives for themselves far away in NYC and Tokyo, known havens for upwardly mobile Chinese. These metropolises loom as othering locations, estranging Nai Nai’s own Changchun-bred sons and instilling future generations with different values and desires. The long shadow of the lie keeps Billi (and her soft-spoken cousin) mostly on the hush from giving these much expression beyond baffled, moral opposition of the central deceit. The film unfolds from Billi’s perspective, and thus from that of a passive, occasionally bemused Chinese-American millennial. Throughout, she’s probed time and again to define her identity, like when the hotel employee escorting her to her room makes small talk by asking whether she prefers China or America. “They’re different,” she falters in her jet-lagged daze. For immigrants and children of immigrants there’s a non-specificity to saying you’re simply “American” that feels untrue. But neither is Billi Chinese. She was born here but the whole place feels alien, her gaze is nearly that of a tourist, and her Mandarin is broken. It’s a surreal experience, belonging precisely nowhere, and both places at the same time, and the film situates firmly within this meandering, pensive negative space rather than to a firm and felt lifestyle commitment that pits Western “freedoms” against Chinese traditions as a conflict to be worked through and resolved.
The wedding itself is a joyous bacchanalia of weepy speeches and old army tales to the sounds of a karaoke box. Partially driven by his disdain for Chinese matrimony traditions, which he considered an excuse to “throw off 5,000 years of sexual repression,” Ang Lee considered the fake staging of a wedding in The Wedding Banquet to be an opportunity to show “just how absurd and ridiculous it all is,” according to an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, while Wang isn’t nearly as cynical about the significance of weddings, The Farewell does similarly mock the notion that the ceremony is legitimately about the bride and groom, rather than a displaced tribute to the family or community that surrounds them. Looking outwards from the stage at the festivities, the camera suggests the performative nature of the ceremony, chaotic and yet orchestrated, the incentive for joy completely fabricated and yet necessary and real. Visually, Wang’s wedding of blue velvet curtains and red balloon masses should recall the opening of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and its similarly monochrome red staging. In Yi Yi, a sham wedding brought about by an unplanned pregnancy ends with a night in the emergency room when the family matriarch falls into a coma. Wang similarly segues her wedding to the hospital, as Billi rushes to intercept her Nai Nai’s new results before they reach her in the film’s emotional crescendo.
The Farewell is an effective, earnest story of familial love, a kind rare in Hollywood nowadays. While it reaches towards a more all-encompassing family drama, it only ever gestures at broad internal worlds for its characters with half-cues and distinct reactions towards the death of the family matriarch (i.e. Haibin falls back into his old drinking and smoking habits, while Jian recedes into an icy shell). But while it suggests a similar scope to the inter-generational films of Chang, Lee, and Yang by the homecoming of its sprawling cast, it unwinds along one track, rather than busy itself with the multiple storylines of different characters. Instead, it plays out more like the unified reckoning of a unit newly assembled from disparate places, and expressed through the relatable, young, American proxy of Billi. Thus the film’s most impressionable images are of the family gathered as one, staring directly at the camera with Billi situated front and center: the round table reaction shot used in its promotional materials, and the solemn, post-wedding march framed by street signs and storefronts. Indeed, weddings, like funerals, are occasions for collective action and collective reflection: the splintering, or in this case—the reaffirming—of familial bonds a natural result.