Critics are abuzz that Chinese-language film The Farewell, with a Golden Globe-winning performance by the Chinese-American actress Awkwafina, was completely snubbed by the Academy Awards.
If there is one thing The Farewell and its director Lulu Wang did wrong, it was being too brutally honest, about the in-between-ness of Chinese-American immigrants, the differences between Eastern and Western culture, and the feelings that come as a loved one passes away.
The plot is about young Chinese-American woman Billi, played by Awkwafina, returning to China in order to see her dying grandmother for the last time. Her Chinese relatives have decided to keep her grandmother in the dark about her advanced cancer, and have arranged a fake wedding as a pretext for all the family to return home. Billi struggles to accept her Chinese family’s decision to lie to her grandmother, and the movie captures the ambiguity of this problem without offering a clear answer.
Emerging from the US Dramatic Competition section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, The Farewell managed to make it into the American mainstream as an all-Asian cast movie, and was nominated for the Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Movie Award, losing to South Korea’s Parasite. Awkwafina, the former underground rapper and comedian from Queens, meanwhile became the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Actress in Musical/Comedy in the prominent Hollywood award’s history.
Despite having been a staple of the 2019-20 awards season, the Academy snubbed The Farewell and its cast nevertheless. The Farewell was loved by critics and audiences alike, but its understated manner of storytelling may have led Oscar jurors to conclude that it is simpler than it actually is. Here are the four reasons why The Farewell should have been nominated.
The past two years have witnessed the rise of Asian representation in American popular culture, including the popular rom-coms Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe, the upcoming Mulan and Shang-Chi, and a critical number of Asian indie films. One of the most remarkable among those, The Farewell, has made nearly $20 million with a budget of $3 million.
With at least 80% of the lines in Chinese (with a distinctive Northeastern accent), The Farewell distinguished itself by telling a story unique to Asian families: lying to an elderly member of the family about a terminal illness. Rendered from Wang’s radio story What You Don’t Know, which appeared as part of an episode of the popular radio show This American Life, the movie brought the audience to Northeastern China’s city Changchun. Through the eyes of Billi, a Chinese-born and American-raised immigrant, the director captures the strange and almost surreal experience of visiting her far-off homeland.
In this movie, there is no kung-fu, dragon or phoenix, and no ancient buildings. The audience sees identical cement buildings left by industrialization in late 20th century, and hears a pre-recorded hawking sales-pitch played over and over again by cold noodle sellers on the street. Some scenes are set in a quasi-renaissance style hotel decorated in white and gold. All of this feels too authentic for a movie made by somebody who spent almost all her life in the US. By not trying to “represent” any Asians or all Asians, Lulu Wang and Awkwafina manage to introduce China in a refreshing yet truthful manner to global audiences by unapologetically being 100% themselves.
Chinese netizens expressed how surprised they were after the movie hit Chinese theaters in Jan 10, 2020. In his trending review on Chinese movie rating site Douban, user “storyteller” received more than 600 “likes.” “I am so shocked by how the director showed a China without any typical ‘Chinese characteristics’,” he wrote. “I called my parents back in Changchun the second day after I watched this movie, and we even identified the hotel where Billi was staying based on the surroundings and views.” The director captured the details of contemporary China with fresh eyes, with an estranged yet endearing gaze on the developing nation.
The movie also explored the intriguing difference between different Chinese identities. Billi, as a typical New Yorker, was characterized by her straight-forwardness, while her parents, who speak both Chinese and English fluently, appeared restrained and short-spoken. They had spent their entire life working overseas to give their only child a normal American middle class life. In comparison, Billi’s grandmother is a bright and candid presence who comfortably bosses everyone around ahead of the ‘wedding’ despite her late-stage cancer. The cast of this movie is precise and accurate in its performance, with Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen, who plays the grandmother, standing out.
If The Farewell were a Chinese meal served to an American audience, it is definitely not General Tso’s Chicken or Broccoli Beef, two staples served in the US that don’t actually exist in China. It is more like a Northeastern Mixed Stew — a down to earth, relatable and comforting home-style dish rarely served during a fancy feast. It is exactly the film’s unexpected truthfulness and nonjudgemental attitude that set it apart.
The most iconic scene in the film is a family dinner at a restaurant. At the round table, a relative starts a debate about whether China or America is better. This is not the first time the question is raised in this film. Upon Billi’s arrival at her hotel, a waiter asks her the same thing. Billi used her limited knowledge of Chinese to say “bu yi yang,” which means they are different.
Indeed, if you had any experience traveling or living in China in recent years, you would see this question coming up in all kinds of scenarios. In today’s China, where the economy is burgeoning, traveling or studying abroad is more and more seen as a choice for an exotic experience. However, this feeling was not in line with Billi or her parents. In a scene where everyone crawls on the ground to find a lost earring, Billi, in a a rare emotional outburst, reveals why her grandmother was so important to her. To Billi, the time spent with her grandparents as a child was one of her few happy and care-free memories. In contrast, moving to the US was a hard time for the entire family.
This scene is likely to hit home for those who have had the experience of leaving home for afar. The feeling of not entirely belonging to either culture is essential to the Chinese-American diaspora experience that the director is trying to capture. This is just one of the many deeper topics this movie touched on. Subtle high-context Chinese communication, family dynamics, the personal and the communal good — these deeply personal but intersubjectivethemes are reflected by the long shots and slow motion artfully used by the director. While the entire story is based on the grief over grandmother’s death, the movie still has a light tone due to its funny moments. The difference between Eastern and Western culture contributes not only to the depth of the story but the sense of humor throughout the film.
It’s Well Executed
The film is multifaceted, but executed with surprising moderation and simplicity. Muted color choices, long shots and slow motion govern the camera work, while the plot was kept as minimal as possible. Not only does The Farewell have an all-Asian cast, but a coherent Asian manifestation. Not ambitious or hasty to answer whether the lie is an ethical choice, the film reconciled the contradicting ideals between East and West by being extremely modest. In Chinese ink and wash painting, leaving enough white space is essential to the beauty of this art. Resonating with this deeply Asian aesthetics, The Farewell leaves many spaces blank while giving enough details to the key elements.
The only direct address of this East-West difference was given by Billi’s uncle. “You (as a Westerner) 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.” Many may find this statement far from convincing, and even cliche, and so does Billi. She goes on to confront the doctor at the hospital about the decision, only to be told, “almost all Chinese families do this.”
The film started with Billi in New York, and ended with her coming back from China to the same city. While Billi questions the decision of the family to lie to her grandmother, she choses to hide the fact that she has lost a scholarship to her parents. She made this choice to reassure the family at the expense of her own guilt and struggles.
The film in the end answers the question: “What is love?” Love is to bear a burden for your loved ones. Despite all the cultural differences and misunderstandings, love is blind to distance or language.