In the wake of the international success and chattering goodwill towards Singapore’s answer to Dynasty, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), pan-Asian cinema has been given the chance to reach mainstream audiences like never before. Lulu Wang’s sophomore film, The Farewell, rides that wave by cherry-picking the popular rising star Akwafina from John M. Chu’s work and employing her in the lead. Here she shifts away from her trademark stiff comedic stylings and settles for a sombre approach that courses through a narrative which straddles the difficulties of inhabiting two starkly differing cultures.
Wang’s story is loosely based upon her own experiences through the uprooted Billi (Akwafina), a Chinese American-Asian, drawn back to China under the guise of a grand wedding where all her globally dispersed family members will convene to celebrate this momentous occasion. Central to the grand conceit is ‘Nai Nai’, her grandmother, who has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, though she knows nothing of her fatal prognosis as her family members have continually lied about her test results. Perplexed by the cover-up, Billi uses the opportunity to explore her heritage and understand the reasoning behind the lies, whilst desperately trying to keep her newly acquired knowledge secret.
It’s a learning experience for both us and Billi
The Farewell’s savvy set-up offers a springboard for Billi to gently mine and uncover Chinese identity through tradition, religion and food. Lots of sumptuous food. From the communal efforts to produce banquets of homemade fare comes forth opportunities to explore family politics over the dinner table. Wang’s camera sits front and centre, staring up from the delicious platters, as her audience is served to every member of the extended family, delivering confessionals peppered with incongruous micro-reactions and details to revisit as the drama ratchets up in its later stages.
It’s a learning experience for both us and Billi (and in turn Wang), whose twenty-year estrangement from China has created a rift in her identity. This dilemma gently resonated with me throughout the film – though I’m not as close as Billi to her motherland - I, too, feel conflicted, alienated and frequently confused by cultural dynamics outside of my Westernised idyll.
Wang accentuates the loss of self in her diaspora by framing Billi as a small figure against giant backdrops of the new emergent China – manufacturing plants, skyscrapers, monuments – all looming large against Billi’s small singular life. The modernisation of China, especially seen in its hospitals and at the humourous wedding party, forms part of The Farewell’s ability to pull you closer and draw the lines of commonality between East and West, as Wang etches Chinese quotidian life in a manner which isn’t a million miles away from Western audiences and yet somewhat acknowledges some preconceived notions of mysterious exoticism. Her characters sing bad karaoke at a wedding like you; they get drunk and slam spirits like you; and these collectively sucked me in to a reality that just happens to be garlanded with differing practices. My mother (of Hindu descent) pointedly noted that the offering of food to the dead is something she practices, and even the barbed meddling conversations with relatives about the aspirations of her offspring to ‘better themselves’ is a chicane she often encounters.
Between the lines is where you’ll find the true comfort of The Farewell
As a multi-layered piece, hinting at Billi’s intersectionality, Wang achieves her target by delivering a touching and warming story, but it's the anchors between those lines where you will find the true comfort of The Farewell. As proud as the naïve ‘Nai Nai’ is at the centre of the tale, she is far from the fool of the film. Frequently delivering sage-like epithetic advice to all of her descendants (‘you’re looking skinny, you should eat more’), her wisdom and matriarchal reach firmly trumps any and all who dares attempt to usurp her social standing. However, by Wang pitting America versus China and seating her film dead in the middle is ever the thinking point. These are two countries whose deep distrust of each other and differing ideologies never escalates into an abrasive conflict it could have been. The Farewell puts forward a fundamental notion that harmony can be realised, across boundaries and borders, through frank dialogues and shared experience whilst still holding onto what makes each of us unique.