The Asian Representation We Actually Needed
By QUYNH (STEPHANIE) BUI | November 18, 2019
Cover photo by A24
Racial representation has become a priority in Hollywood films these past few years, with ambitious efforts such as Marvel’s superhero movie Black Panther and the box office hit Crazy Rich Asians. However, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disconnected by the fact that each of the films’ racial presence tends to trump the plot, making the films feel inauthentic. This is not the case with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, starring Awkwafina, where a heartwarming and emotional family story intertwines itself elegantly with the East-West cultural conflict.
The story centers around the reunion of the Wang family, where Billi (played by Awkwafina), her parents (played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and their extended family return to China after discovering Nai Nai – the Chinese word for grandmother (played by Zhao Shuzhen), has only a few months to live due to terminal cancer. The family decides not to tell Nai Nai the truth, and orchestrates a “wedding” as their excuse to spend time with her.
As the movie features an all-Asian cast, I thought it was going to be like any Asian movie in Hollywood: accentuated stereotypes, overdramatic plotline, and an overbearing focus on race. However, I was positively surprised.
This story is not a story about race, but about family. The family members share an admirable love for one another, despite Billi’s family’s Westernized thinking which conflicts with their relatives’ Eastern viewpoints. Every subtle detail is executed so honestly that it didn’t feel like watching a movie. From the awkward small talk at dinner to the hierarchy in Asian cultures, The Farewell manages to restore them within the Chinese cultural context.
The film realistically portrays cultural clash in the most respectful manner, as it doesn’t alienate either side. The film’s genuine approach is best exemplified by Billi’s insistence to tell her Nai Nai the truth, as it is illegal to hide patient conditions in the U.S. However, she is quickly dismissed by her uncle (played by Yongbo Jiang). He desperately explains how the Chinese bear the weight of family and community, and so by lying to her Grandma they are, in fact, carrying her pain for her so that she can enjoy the last moments of her life.
The film’s cinematography is also unexpectedly spectacular. The blue undertone and close-up shots throughout the film reflect the solemn mood of the family as they prepare for the departure of their beloved mother and grandmother. This contrasts with the joyful scenes in the movie, as the audience can recognize the happy facade of the Wang family members masking their sorrows and suppressed emotions.
The dual identity of Billi and her close-knit relationship with Nai Nai are focal points in the film. Billi, a 30-year-old, has found herself lost in New York City – no job, rent overdue, living off her parents and getting rejected from her dream fellowship. Throughout the movie, Billi, despite not having the best accent and having adopted the Americanized attitude, learns to reconnect with her cultural heritage thanks to her special connection with Nai Nai. Another unique point the film offers is that unlike most prior Asian American movies, The Farewell does not delve too much into the hardships the Wang family has to face but rather their efforts to understand each other’s differences and reunite.
The Farewell is also a movie about life and its sad reality. Although Billi does not wish to go back, she has to face her reality. Although she wishes to catch up with what she has missed over the years, she cannot turn back time and can only reminisce about the good times in her memory.
The film wouldn’t be this impactful without its terrific cast. Awkwafina, who is known for her comic debut role in Crazy Rich Asians, has transformed herself into a raw and vulnerable actress. Despite looking soulless for most of the movie, her expression fits the narrative so truthfully as she tries to contain her sadness and be present for her grandmother. Although every character has their own flaws and their words are not always the most gentle, they are united by their love for one another. The writers did a brilliant job as every line is remarkably articulate yet natural, making the film a rare gem in the drama genre.
The Farewell is what I think “Asian representation” should be: race should not be the main focus, but its implications in family, culture, and life should. The film is a perfect “hotpot” this season: A dash of humor, a sprinkle of melancholy, a hint of drama, and a shower of emotions that I guarantee will warm you up and remind you of home (at least it did for me).
Overall rating: 8/10
*Author’s note: The Farewell will be showing in cinemas from November 21, 2019, with Dutch subtitles.
If you have watched this movie or have any movie recommendations, message us on Instagram at @the.magazine.ams.
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