I started tearing up thirty minutes into watching The Farewell – a new, Chinese-American family drama directed by Lulu Wang. While the premise of the film – a Chinese family using the pretext of a wedding to see their family matriarch one last time after she is, unbeknownst to her, diagnosed with terminal cancer – naturally lends itself to emotional catharsis, thirty minutes had got to be a new record. By the end of the film, I, along with the rest of the booked out cinema (most of whom were, like me, Asian-Australian) were absolutely floored – some pensively reflecting about filial piety and the diaspora (guilty), others just trying their best not to burst out into ugly sobbing (also guilty). While watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel that so many of the scenes and characters were drawn directly from my own life. Unsurprisingly, The Farewell has been hailed as a triumph of meaningful representation, and rightfully so.
I enjoyed the film so much that I decided to watch it a second time, this time with my parents. And though only a week had passed since I last watched it, there I was, tearing up at the exact same moments, feeling the same bittersweet tremors of emotions. But as much as I was there to rewatch the film, I was also there to watch my parents watch the film. As much as The Farewell resonated with me, I wondered how they would view it, given that the central story of the film is as much theirs as it is mine.
To my disappointment, it became very clear when we left the cinemas that they had not been as taken with the film as I was.
“It’s a movie Western audiences will like” my father says.
“I don’t think it will do well in China” my mum continues, before adding how bad she thought Awkwafina’s posture was.
Their chief contention was that the subject matter of the film is just not something Chinese people think is worth making a film about, given that lying about death is almost as certain as death itself in the Chinese lifecycle. While the guiding tenet of this push for representation is this idea that having your own experiences reflected on the screen makes everything more relatable, maybe there is a limit to how familiar something is before it just seems banal and vapid. The underlying uniqueness of the film does assume that the viewer comes from a different cultural background. Maybe expecting them to be excited about hiding a terminal diagnosis from a parent was the same as expecting a Western audience to be excited about a white family who send their elderly parents into a nursing home.
Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced at their line of reasoning. I retort that they’re applying a double standard to the film just because the director is Chinese, and that they would never have commented on how “commonplace” a film’s subject matter was if it was about another ethnicity. Indeed, the recent push for representation has unintentionally exposed the growing chasm between the Chinese diaspora and their homeland. While second generation Asians celebrated Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu being cast in Marvel’s Shang-chi, many Chinese Marvel fans found him “not handsome enough” for the role. Such was the intensity of the criticism that one can’t help but think that Chinese audiences would rather the role be whitewashed than be given to an Asian without double eyelids. My parents ultimately concede that they probably would view the film differently had it been an Italian, or Russian family.
But more than just an emotional response, my parents point out more tangible aspects of the film they found strange. While I found it amazing that the majority of the film was in Mandarin, my parents thought this was more to impress Western viewers than an actual commitment to linguistic realism. Supporting their argument is the casting of Tzi Ma as Billi’s father. Even though he plays a migrant from Northern China, Tzi Ma, who is originally from Hong Kong, speaks Mandarin with a very noticeable Cantonese accent which is jarringly contrasted with the perfect Northern Chinese accents of all the other family members. English speaking actors are panned all the time for not getting an accent 100% right (just think about Emma Watson every time she plays someone who isn’t Hermione Granger), so I accept that this is a fairer criticism. Indeed, even amongst the second-generation Chinese-Australians friends I first watched the film with, many of us couldn’t help but note how unusual it was for the tones in Billi’s Mandarin to be so over the place despite her spending the first six years of her life in China (many of us had come to Australia much younger, but spoke much better Mandarin). Initially, I rationalised it as a directorial choice, but later on, I read that Awkwafina learnt to speak Mandarin specifically for the role. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel as if any of this detracted from the film’s brilliance.
Since watching it, my dad has showed me a rather biting Chinese review he found online, and one line in particular stands out.
“The film is plagued by one problem, and that’s its awareness of its own uniqueness. It can’t fully leave a Western perspective, but at the same time, insists that it’s sufficiently Eastern. As a result, it struggles to convey both East and West.”
While the writer almost certainly meant this is a criticism, ironically, it’s probably the most succinct explanation I’ve read on what it feels like to be a second-generation Asian. Realism is, of course, an important part of meaningful representation, and for Chinese audiences, maybe The Farewell falls short of expectations. However, the purpose of cinema is not to capture reality as it is, but to speak to truths held by the audience through evoking particular emotions and thoughts. And perhaps it’s this ambiguity of identity that makes The Farewell, while jarringly unrealistic for some, so powerfully truthful for so many others.