Lulu Wang didn’t want to make “The Farewell” solely about identity.
“I don’t look at my family every day and go, ‘Gosh, look at my Asian family,’ right? Or, like, ‘Look at me, I am so Asian,’” the writer-director told HuffPost. “When I look in the mirror every day, I go through my life just as me, and I look at my family just as family. And so it was important that I tell a story that both captures and honors the details of their real life, but also doesn’t limit them to just that.”
Wang’s film unravels the tensions between New York City-based struggling artist Billi (Awkwafina, exquisite in her first dramatic role), her parents and their relatives in China. Billi’s nai nai (paternal grandmother) is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. And, as in Wang’s real life, the family agrees to keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, going as far as, for example, paying a copy shop to alter her test results to describe her tumors as “benign shadows.” The film unfolds over the course of a week or two, while the family plans a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin as a ruse to get everyone together.
The reason for the lie, as one of Billi’s aunts says, is that telling Nai Nai about her true condition “would ruin her good mood,” or as Billi’s uncle says, would cause too much “pressure” and create too great of an “emotional burden.” He also attributes it to a fundamental difference between cultures in the West and East: the former tend to value the rights of the individual, and the latter value individual sacrifices for the good of the family or society. As tensions over the family’s lie build, the cultural differences magnify.
Wang’s powerful exploration of the space between the two cultures is what makes the film feel like a miracle for those of us who have lived this experience of straddling identities. I grew up in the U.S. with Chinese immigrant parents, and there were so many moments that felt instantaneously familiar to me. I have spent — and will continue to spend — my entire life navigating that space, an existential struggle that few people in my life really understand and a difficult dilemma to articulate. Every visit to China presents a minefield of anxiety and frustration, moments that become lost in translation.
The beauty of “The Farewell” is that all of this is authentic, down to its tiny details and throwaway lines, from the family’s conversations over dinner, with copious amounts of baijiu (an extremely high-proof Chinese grain liquor) and a Lazy Susan piled with plates of Beijing roast duck, to Nai Nai instructing Billi to greet every wedding guest and warmly address them with the correct titles.
“The film is very much about identity, but it goes beyond skin deep. I think that’s a very otherizing way of looking at diversity and representation, when it’s skin deep,” Wang said. “For me, the film is about identity. But it’s about loss, it’s about regret, it’s about guilt. It’s about gaps in communication, whether that’s geographical, or language, or cultural. It isn’t just about the way we look.”
Over the last few years, Asian Americans have finally started to break new ground in movies and television, particularly since the box-office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” a splashy summer rom-com — a genre in which Asians in Hollywood have rarely, if ever, gotten to be at the center. Other projects, such as Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe,” have featured protagonists who happen to be Asian American, and where their identity isn’t the central plot point. Yet, by including authentic and culturally specific details, these stories don’t ignore their identity either. “The Farewell” feels especially powerful in the way it not only authentically portrays a particular identity but also centers a particular experience tied to that identity.
Before telling an audio version of her story on a 2016 episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” Wang had trouble finding producers who were interested in telling it exactly how it is, in all of its complexities.
“I wanted to show a family that was very culturally specific, but also very American at the same time,” Wang said. “A family that both feels very Chinese, but also still feels very, very American — and in a character that feels very, like, iconic New Yorker.”
Instead, producers and executives seemed to want to neatly categorize it as either an American or Chinese story, she said. For example, some American producers suggested not having the characters speak Chinese and resetting the film in New York’s Chinatown. Chinese producers told Wang that they saw the film as “too American,” suggesting that she write it from the perspective of “a Chinese character who completely understands this culture,” she said.
Both approaches would have removed the key part of Billi’s experience: returning to a place and a culture that she knows but can’t fully understand. That distinct but simultaneously nebulous point of view is what resonates beyond the messaging that “representation matters.” Yes, what audiences see is important, but genuine storytelling about diverse perspectives is what leaves lasting impact and is worth applauding.
So I rooted for Billi, as she — like me, when I speak my rudimentary Chinese — exerts great effort to convey her thoughts in Chinese, sometimes stumbling through pronunciations or asking her dad, Haiyan, to supply a quick translation or a more precise word. I chortled when Nai Nai coyly asks Billi if she has a “friend” (really referring to a romantic partner), and when a clerk at Billi’s hotel makes small talk by asking her about life in the United States and whether she prefers the U.S. or China — overly general questions that I, too, get asked a lot in China. In a funny on-screen gag, the English subtitles translating Billi’s Chinese read: “K, thanks, bye” — not quite the literal translation of what Billi says in that moment, but accurately capturing her annoyance and desire to exit the interaction as soon as possible.
And I started crying when Billi and her mom, Jian, have a tense confrontation about the confusion and isolation she felt after she, Jian and Haiyan immigrated to the U.S. when Billi was a kid. It reminded me so much of similar conversations between my parents and me when we’ve realized the bond that we share, of being our own little island separated from our larger family. I thought of my parents again when Haiyan and his brother, who lives in Japan, both grapple with the guilt of not being present to care for their mother and other aging family members. My parents have struggled with this, too.
Throughout the film, Billi’s parents, particularly Haiyan, in some ways serve as guideposts for the audience, explaining to Billi the pros and cons of the lie. Early in the film, Billi mentions Haiyan’s career as a translator. Fittingly, throughout the film, he is both a literal and figurative translator, translating both language and culture for her. And both he and Jian serve as intermediaries for Billi — having spent so many years in the U.S., they understand Billi’s perspective, sharing her frustrations while navigating their own confusion.
“They don’t have the answers, you know?” Wang said. “On some level, they want to give her the answers that she’s looking for, but they don’t have the answers either.”
I didn’t realize that I had never really seen this experience portrayed on-screen, and how much I needed to see it — until I actually saw it. There’s so much power in seeing our particular experiences, especially those that are difficult to articulate, told with details that are instantly recognizable to those of us who have lived them.
“I didn’t want to tell the story from a place of being other,” Wang said. “I didn’t want to tell the story from a place of being marginalized and making a point of that. I wanted to tell the story from a place of being the center.”
“The Farewell” is now in limited release. It opens nationwide on Aug. 2.
Lulu Wang didn’t want to make “The Farewell” solely about identity.