Fête Pulse: Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019)
Written by Deborah Lau-Yu
With a single glance at The Farewell’s movie poster, for most people of all ages and geographies, it certainly triggers nostalgia of parents, grandparents, and the love and emotions of every family that goes through life together.
There are two resounding reasons that drew the editorial team at Fête Chinoise to watch this film:
1. In a world of celebrating the first to achieve something, the mindspace of firsts is crowded and the titles often repeated in media, across industries. So for a moviemaker with Asian content on North American silver screens following big hit Crazy Rich Asians and the less recent blockbuster Joy Luck Club, this is not a first by any means. However, Director Lulu Wang is one of the few female directors and one of the even fewer Chinese-American female directors producing in North America. The fact that she herself is a part of the diaspora that is featured in her content is incredibly special and takes courage. Asian representation is beginning to have its moment right now in North American film, but it still takes a lot of breaking ground to achieve and reach milestones. Wang’s journey to get this independent film produced was full of challenges and obstacles that she and her supporters conquered.
2. Secondly, is the story which features Billi and her Nai Nai, portrayed by two very talented actresses, Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen. It is centered around a granddaughter, her grandmother, and an entire family setting that anyone can relate to from any culture. Yet the story also deeply weaves in cultural nuances that are specific to Chinese-born American families that have yet to be discovered as worthy material on the big screen. The big family gatherings and the often-silent expressions of love are common motifs seen in Asian families. However, with the storyline of masked grief, these sentiments are heightened.
What stands out is Awkwafina’s emotional performance and the personal attachment she has to the role. Awkwafina is the pseudonym of Nora Lum, who plays the filial granddaughter Billi. Known for her role in Crazy Rich Asians as Peik Lin and her work as a rapper, this was certainly a more dramatic role than she has ever played. The plot which surrounds the family matriarch, Nai Nai, really spoke to the Lum because of her own relationship to her grandmother. She is very close to her grandmother since her mother had passed away when she was a young child. On a personal level, this film resonated with her heart. Lum shared in an earlier interview with Refinery29 that when she read the script, she cried. “I never thought I’d see a movie like it, one that was very personal to me. I didn’t know how many people would even see it.” But the role posed a small but big challenge: the main character, Billi, loosely based on director Lulu Wang was an American-raised Chinese individual who would be fluent in Mandarin. However, Lum does not speak Mandarin fluently. Still she tried and while audiences who know the dialect will notice the broken fluency, and wavering intonations, they will also undoubtedly appreciate the raw emotion that pierces through linguistic imperfections. It becomes a part of the imperfect beauty of the entire film.
The film even dares to explore the family tension that arises when discussing issues of identity for children sent overseas for school. "What is better? America or China? If China is better, why send your child to school in America? If America is better, why aren't the relatives who immigrated there more successful? How do you determine success? Is it all about money?" These are questions dotted in the conversations between family members in the story, and for many families in real life, probably felt like a deja vu. Often times throughout the story, the differences between Chinese versus American upbringing and the ambiguity of Chinese-American identity surface just long enough to remind us of the complexity of diasporas.
As citizens and viewers from diverse backgrounds, our Fête Chinoise community has wondered what the reception will be like for everyone – from those who relate to the nuances of Asian culture, to those who are simply interested in learning about this cultural phenomenon portrayed in The Farewell. We would love to hear what you thought about the film.