The Farewell: Based on a True Lie

by Gabriela Sealy

  1. Introduction

The film The Farewell (2019) was written and directed by Lulu Wang. Wang the writer and director of this film, also composed the piano pieces in the soundtrack. The story of the farewell was first shared by Wang in 2015, on the episode what you don’t know of the podcast this American life. Set in the modern-day city of New York and northern China, the story is based on experiences taken place in 2013. Billi is a Chinese immigrant living in the United States, maintaining her independent American lifestyle and a strong relationship with her family in America and China, but suffers conflicts with her identity, culturally and socially. Wang has centered the film around Billi’s Chinese family dealing with the terminal lung cancer diagnosis of her grandmother, or as Billi calls her “Nai Nai”. The family devises a plan to come together to see her one last time, without her raising any suspicions of the real reason for the long-overdue family gathering.

This essay will address traditional and western societal norms presented in this film. Wang’s curation creates an experience that undoctors the audience and tears down the walls of racialized ideas. Identity is often characterized as a singular status, disregarding the many individuals that fit in between. Wang has used an abundance of her life experience and skills to illustrate a relatable film that resonates with the audience regardless of cultural differences. This film communicates the perspectives of identity conflicts, behind the personas portrayed as Asian, American, and immigrants.

2. Identity and Culture on The Screen

Wang didn’t hold back while writing, directing, and recreating her experiences. In some Asian directed or written films there is often an act of “whitewashing”, or “yellow washing” done to the story to allow the film easy assimilation for its audience (Chong130-134). According to Chong these expressions suddenly made an appearance in mainstream media and the blogosphere rather than in academia. These were coined by audiences in reaction to the types of Asian representation, on western screens. Wang went through various interviews and documented her own experiences in New York and China, meticulously creating many universally relatable moments in the film. This was done without any compromise for either one of the shared identities of this Chinese American film.

A mainstream eastern audience would not be expecting the approach which the writer has taken in relaying the traditions and customs surrounding a tragedy or illness in a Chinese family. In The Farewell, the audience receives the perspectives of an Asian American woman, communicated to the audience in the languages of its origin. The interculturality of this film allows the Asian and Asian American audience to experience “self-reflexivity” and “rhetorical sovereignty”. The impact on how this film communicates culture can be relayed to Atanarjuat a 2001 Canadian film in the Inuit language Inuktitut, and its strong impact on the audience.  Many critiques and concerns surrounded this film being intercultural and multilingual. These seemingly unusual cultural factors are what strengthen the impact. Forming the overall cinematic experience of this film and changing the way the message is presented.

3. The Essence of a Home

The unfiltered experienced of The Farewell can be characterized as a dramatic comedy, the essence originally inspired by Wang’s real-life experiences in China and America. This film had low political content and low intent. Despite breaking barriers of interculturality, it does not disrupt or challenge the political origins of these barriers. In The Farewell, the closest we reach politically is the second hospital scene, with Billi, her father, her cousin, and little Nai Nai Billi’s great aunt (00:50:27). In this scene, Billi’s Father is telling members of the family that in America it would not be possible to officially lie and keep a medical illness away from the family member. Billi supports this claim exclaiming “it’d be illegal!” This scene could be a simple comparison of how the two societies function, making Billi and her father’s conflict the result of forged by two societies.

The set of this film follows a neutral theme. The focus of this film is family, the only excessive props are the food, which is featured about 7 times in this film. There are diegetic sounds coming from the surrounding elements, with an emphasis on non-diegetic music playing throughout scenes where emotion is the only language necessary to communicate. The nondiegetic music is instrumental, and the tempo follows the aura of the scene it plays over. The noises do not interrupt the film, instead, they create cohesion between the scenes. The camera shots used are medium shots and medium close-ups throughout most of the film, with wide and long shots that are featured in the final scenes. The wide-angle shot begins as the taxi backs away from Nai Nai’s apartment, on its way to the airport (1:29:16). This dramatic scene is shot to express the space and distance being created between the family, as the camera pans out leaving Nai Nai in the distance. Transitioning from medium shots to wide angles refers to the physical distance between Asia and America, as well as Nai Nai and Billi.

4. Telling the lie

There are subtitles used throughout this film, mandarin is the primary language being spoken. The subtitles are in a light font, the font is colored in white with a thin black outline. This style of font increases legibility throughout the film’s warm neutral color scheme. The title at the beginning of the film is presented in mandarin, the English title is then layered on top, following by the mandarin title slowly disappearing (0:01:50). The intertwining of the two titles symbolizes the relation to the two languages in relation to the film. The rest of the subtitles for this film do not disrupt the film, they only serve as communicative tools.

      This film strongly falls under the category of realism, imitating the reality of the focus. This film features a diverse cast of Asian, Asian American, and American actors. The characters are not the over-exaggerated Asian characters seen in mainstream media. Keeping authentic characters, along with their characteristics, was very intentional in this film. The exaggeration of accents and culturally specific characteristics may be viewed controversially; this creates a double-edged sword effect when coining authenticity

“The decision to use or not to use the constructed Indian accent translates into a cultural and professional crisis of identity… To perform the accent means success and recognition in standard Hollywood narratives, but it also denies the individuality, variety of experiences, and diversity of the actors who long to challenge the pre-existing character stereotypes” (Davé 144)

 Wang’s choice to make the film mostly in Mandarin, bring exoticism, and elevates the characters. While minimizing the times the audience can distinguish the often-stereotyped Asian accent. Wang, using Asian actor for her Asian characters, and American Asian actors for her American Asian characters is a simple decision, but not often the obvious one. Many films in the past have resorted to more stereotypical, or more ambiguous alternatives.

The relationship between characters is unique, these characters don’t allow their many differences to hinder their strong connections. The main characters have different nationalities including immigrants, Chinese citizens, Japanese citizens, and American citizens. The characters are multigenerational, giving both a modern and traditional perspective. In The Farewell there is a constant theme of keeping the younger relatives in check with tradition “Differing from their immigrant parents, immigrant children and children of immigrants lack meaningful connections to their “old” world.” (Zhou 67). There is a great deal of respect, and responsibility towards the older generation in Asian families, despite the conflicts between new beliefs of younger generations.

5. Conclusion

Terminal illness can strike deep dark emotions, a theme of grief filled with pain, rage, and anger are the usual expectation. The Farewell challenges the mainstream perspectives of a family during such a sensitive time. All the while breaking socio-cultural barriers and ignoring stereotypes portrayed in mainstream mass media. This film submerges the audience into Billi’s lifestyle, culture, language, and identities, forcing the audience to fully listen and understand her story. The Farewell is opening the doors for more narratives, and perspectives of minorities and immigrants on the big screen. Bringing power to the focus of a middle-class family, rather than a glamorized unrelatable exaggerated version. Although it does not directly address political issues that Asian Americans face, it does address cultural traditions and customs that can be universally relatable. The Farewell is a beautifully curated multilingual film, that challenges the audience to listen with not just their ears but with their hearts.

Works Cited

Angilirq, Paul A, Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk, Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Pauloosie Qulitalik, Madeline Ivalu, and Eugene Ipkarnak. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Montréal, Québec: Distributed exclusively in Canada by Alliance Atlantis, 2002.

Chong, Sylvia Shin Huey. “What Was Asian American Cinema?” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 2017, pp. 130–35, doi:10.1353/cj.2017.0028.

Davé, Shilpa. “Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting, and Asian American Studies.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 2017, pp. 142–47, doi:10.1353/cj.2017.0030.

Glass, Ira. “585: In Defense of Ignore. What You Don’t Know” Act One. This American Life. Chicago Public Media, 2016.

Zhou, Min. “Growing Up American: The Challenge Confronting Immigrant Children and Children of Immigrants.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 23, no. 1, 1997, pp. 63–95, doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.23.1.63.