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« The New Classics - In the Loop| Main| Would you rather?»
Tuesday
Jul 23 2019

The Farewell: Where personal and universal meet

By Lynn Lee

Coming out ofThe Farewell,I jokingly asked my husband,"Any of those family dynamics ring a bell?"  It was a double-edged joke,as one of the most challenging differences between us is our night-and-day attitudes towards our respective families,which we attribute to our different backgrounds.  He's white and can trace his American lineage back to the Mayflower,but feels no particular responsibility to his immediate family and rarely sees his extended family;I'm a second-generation Korean American,born to naturalized U.S.citizens who,despite having now been here far longer than they ever lived in Korea,have maintained strong ties to their birth country and culture.  As such,they regularly remind me of my obligations to my immediate family,my extended family,and even my husband's family - something that both amuses and bemuses my husband.

No surprise,then,thatThe Farewellwas a must-see for me.  True,it's not "my"story: I'm not Chinese,after all,and as far as I know no one in my family has ever lied to anyone else in the family about their health.  But the film's broader underlying themes – the feeling of being caught between the values of East and West,and not fully belonging to one or the other – spoke to me at a gut level...

And giving the central role of Billi to Awkwafina,who's about as identifiably "American"as an Asian American star gets,felt inspired,right down to her meager Chinese language skills;as someone who understands Korean at maybe a 12-year-old level but can only speak it (at best) at a 3-year-old's,I could relate to Billi's struggles to communicate in a language that's at once utterly familiar and more than a little foreign.

Yet as I watchedThe Farewell,the feeling that I had any particular personal claim to it dissipated,replaced by a growing sense that despite its delightful cultural specificity (the graveyard and wedding banquet scenes in particular are sublime),this is truly a movie foreveryone– not just Chinese Americans or Asian Americans or even first or second generation immigrants.  It should resonate with anyone who has a complicated relationship with their family or who's ever felt alien or conflicted on returning to their hometown after being away for a long time.  In director Lulu Wang's own words,the movie is:

...about what happens when you leave home.  What are the values that you bring from the home that you left,and what are the values that you leave behind?  What do you adopt?"

And how does that affect your dynamic with the people who stayed behind?

In the immigration context,of course,these questions apply just as much to the first generation as to the second,if not more so.  Although Billi's attachment to her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen,whose vibrant charm belies her character's dire diagnosis) is the heart of the film,one of the understated pleasures ofThe Farewellis its perceptive handling of her relationship with her parents (beautifully played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin).It's fraught with unspoken tensions—including not just Billi's life choices (which she'll only tell them so much about) but theirs,particularly their original decision to move from China to the U.S.when she was only six.  Wang explores with remarkable delicacy the emotional impact of that decision on Billi,as well as her father's unstated but palpable guilt over leaving his mother behind.

That conflict is shared by Billi's uncle (Jiang Yongbo),who also left China long ago – in his case for Japan – and can only expiate his guilt through a wedding toast so lugubrious it verges on hilarious.  Indeed,my only real quibble with the film is that I wanted to know more about that part of Billi's family – why they moved to Japan,how they negotiatedthatset of cultural conflicts,how they convinced her cousin (a very deadpan-funny Chen Han) and his girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) to go through with their charade of a wedding,and what on earth was going through said girlfriend's head the entire time?  The complete lack of explanation is part of the joke,yet I couldn't help feeling like an essential part of this tale of displacement and diaspora remained tantalizingly untold.

Still,I can't quarrel with Wang for choosing to focus on her own story and to tell it her way.  Its very specificity,which she admirably refused to compromise,is ironically what gives the movie such broad appeal.  From the details of her own,lived experience of "an actual lie,"we get emotional truth that transcends language,race,and nationality.  That's a welcome gift at any time,but especially in these times.

Related articles:
Sundance Review
Our Interview with Lulu Wang

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Reader Comments (7)

This movie is (and will be) at the top of my "favorite lists"this year.It's incredible.

July 23,2019 | Unregistered CommenterEli

Eli -- it's also way up top for me thus far.

Lynn -- thank you for this beautiful piece.I was anxiously awaiting your response and the anecdote about your husband is so relatable.in that,that's how I am about my family too.

also appreciated the query about the Japan side of the story since I felt that a bit but you articulated it so well.

July 23,2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Can't wait for this to come to my neck of the woods.

July 23,2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

this is a lovely review (the best review i've read on this site likely).So well written and a wonderful mix at just the right balance of review + personal.

July 23,2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Wonderful film.Just saw it today.Highly recommend.

July 23,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Lynn - this is such a personal and great review;I have close ties to my immediate family but no ties to anyone beyond that so I am thinking about that difference in cultures.

I'm excited for Awkwafina to get this kind of role - and I definitely like the trend of hybrid entertainers like her using their stage names and getting credit for doing great work.Cher was not less great a movie actor because she acted as Cher rather than Cherilyn Sarkisian.

July 27,2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Lynn,thank you for this lovely piece of writing and sharing your own personal experience

July 27,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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