The Farewell and the Shock of Your Own Reflection

Image: A24

In Chinese, the title of Lulu Wang’s intimate comedy-drama The Farewell is《别告诉她》[bié gào sù tā], which means: ‘Don’t tell her’. It follows the tendency of many Chinese films to be given new titles when they enter foreign markets – the clipped, allusive language used in the originals often translates clumsily, so international distributors just release them under completely different names. Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, for example, is actually called《花樣年華》[fa yeung nin wa], an idiom which roughly translates to ‘the flowering years’.

I often feel that this is a fitting metaphor for the cultural barrier between China and the West, and the inherent difficulty of engaging with a culture to which you do not belong. A Western filmgoer might watch a Chinese film seeking some kind of broader cultural understanding, but that process often leads instead to a kind of cultural misreading – you think you’re gaining some kind of deep, cultural insight when in fact you can’t even get the title right. It doesn’t help that this exchange is so asymmetrical, almost always presented in a form in which Westernness is centred and Chineseness is otherised, stereotyped. When Western critics talk about Chinese films, they often interpret them as making grand, sweeping statements about The Chinese People in ways that they would never say about the work of, say, American filmmakers (indeed, American film is usually thought of as simply: ‘film’). Filmmakers from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are lumped together into the single umbrella of ‘Chinese cinema’ (or worse, ‘Asian cinema’), when in fact those countries have radical cultural and historical differences. 

The Farewell is a curious anomaly in this equation, however. It is a film set in China, with a script mostly written in Mandarin – and yet it is an American film, made by an American director, starring an American actress. Lulu Wang, like the film’s protagonist Billi, was born in Changchun in Northeast China, but moved to the US as a child. Billi lives in between cultures, in between languages. She is largely fluent in Mandarin, but she speaks with a thick American accent; she struggles to read; she forgets simple phrases like ‘congratulations’. When her grandmother (or Nai Nai) is diagnosed with lung cancer, she is baffled by her extended relatives’ conspiracy to keep it a secret from her – a common practice among Chinese families. She protests, but is quickly rebuffed, accused of shallow, Westernised individualism. 

Billi’s outward appearance of Chineseness belies her American upbringing. She is Chinese, but she does not understand Chinese people, and they do not understand her. Billi is a lot like me, and a lot like many people in Chinese diaspora, kids who grew up in a different cultural environment to their families and who are now struggling with the confusing, painful work of reconciling the two. If Chinese culture is something so radically alien to Western audiences that it cannot be truly translated, then The Farewell is a film about the unique perplexity of having to translate your own culture to yourself. Unlike many Chinese films, whose messages get garbled in the miscommunication between cultures, in The Farewell the miscommunication is the message. This is why it is important, at least in my mind, to emphasise that The Farewell is neither a Chinese film nor an American film, but a specifically Chinese-American film – one which investigates the uniquely disorienting position of being part of a diaspora, always viewing your culture from the outside.

I felt embarrassed watching The Farewell. Not because I disliked it – on the contrary, it is a beautiful, tender, heartfelt film. But I am unable to watch this film – watch Billi struggle her way through awkward, confusing cultural encounters and her own stunted language skills – without seeing my own life reflected back at me in stark, painfully accurate detail. I cringe at all the simple words Billi forgets, at her inability to understand the world her relatives live within, so different to her own. I cringe at these things because I, too, have been guilty of them, have felt the shame and bewilderment of wanting desperately to reconnect to your heritage and discovering you are unable to. And I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve watched Chinese films, read about Chinese history, tried to improve my language skills, asked my parents about my family history – and yet I still don’t feel any closer to understanding what it means to be Chinese.

That experience – that pain of distance, of not knowing – is central to the film, and it also gives rise to one of the film’s few flaws, which is that its portrayal of China – of actual Chinese people – sometimes feels strangely shallow. To her credit, Wang gets a lot of things right – the emotional texture of a round-table dinner with your extended family; the gentle teasing and pedantry of Chinese grandparents; the mercurial, self-erasing nature of China’s rapidly developing cities. But the grander, thematic points she tries to draw out – about the conflicts between Western individualism and Chinese collectivism, or the tension between patriotism and the desire to emigrate – seem to rest on clichéd, oversimplified ideas of what being Chinese is supposed to mean. The film raises the spectre of these issues without a sincere or informed engagement of where those concepts and ideals actually come from.

For example, in one much-discussed scene from the film, Billi’s uncle chastises her insistence that Nai Nai should be told the truth about her illness, saying that, to Chinese people, it’s better for the family to bear the burden of that truth collectively rather than let the individual suffer. This infuriated my mother, who I saw the film with – she told me that, in her view, his appeal to a supposedly Chinese value system was just an excuse, a pseudo-patriotic ruse to try and absolve himself from his own sense of shame and guilt. That, in fact, not all Chinese people would agree with this; that not all Chinese people would even conceal such an illness in the first place. These are nuances that the film does not express, it seems to me that it would be all too easy for an audience member – particular a Western audience member – to walk out of the film believing in a singular, homogenised version of Chinese culture without room for disagreement or self-critique. The film never seems able to give native Chinese people the same capacity for complexity and inner conflict as it affords people in the diaspora like Billi.

Still, I find it hard to judge The Farewell, because to do so would be to judge myself. That it took a conversation with my mother to understand this about my own culture is testament to the fact that I haven’t got it figured out any more than Wang, or Billi, or anyone else in the diaspora. This loss – this fundamental, fatal lack of understanding – is what we mourn for, a kind of cultural phantom limb felt by a whole generation of Asian kids growing up in the West. The Farewell gives voice to that loss. Billi grieves for her dying grandmother, but she also grieves for herself – or, at least, a version of herself: the version who didn’t move to America and lose trace of her origins, the version she spends the whole film chasing, the version she (and I) will never know.

That the film is able to express those emotions with such rich earnestness is something to be grateful for, and it is a refreshing counterpoint to many of the dominant narratives about Asian media representation that have floated around in the past couple years. Representation is usually framed as something uniformly positive, that to see yourself on screen should be an inherently joyous, celebratory act. And this is true, in part, but we also have to make space for forms of representation which reckon with the very real pain and confusion that come with being part of a diaspora. We don’t just need to see ourselves reflected in films: we need films which force us to reckon with those reflections, which show us in all our flaws and failings and galvanise us to do better, to reach out to our communities and our families and attempt to build, as best we can, that cultural understanding. The Farewell is one of those films, and I hope it is a sign of more to come.

Ian Wang