Film Review: ‘The Farewell’ is actually a ‘hello’ into cross-cultural understanding

The Farewell, which grabbed everyone's attention at this year's Sundance Film Festival, recently made its Los Angeles Premiere. The rest of the world gets to watch this film on July 12 - and the storyline will certainly resonate with audiences. It's not just a Chinese American or Asian American story - The Farewell, which is directed by newcomer LuLu Wang, touches everyone's heart. We all have family drama. We all have or had a grandparent we love but also challenges our patience. We all deal with crossing ethical lines when confronted with certain problems within our family dynamic. Ms. Wang’s film, which stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong and Jiang Yongbo, is truly a film for us all. 

Awkwafina. (Image courtesy IMDb)

Awkwafina. (Image courtesy IMDb)

Parimal M. Rohit:Rachael, as our resident non Asian American, what struck you most about The Farewell?

Rachael Garcia:I was most impressed with Ms. Wang’s ability to balance a melancholy theme, the family's emotional burden of not telling the matriarch of the family that she's dying with culturally insightful humor. It was an uncanny balance of irritating and irresistible, because as a Westerner and non Asian American I can't imagine not telling a family member they are terminally ill, however as I learned through the main character, Awkwafina’s Billi, it seemed to be the less painful way to say goodbye to a loved one. 

PMR: The balance was uncanny, indeed - for the reasons you just said: this is not an Asian American story, exclusively. Yes, there are certain cultural nuances, but there's so much more to the film than the broad expanses of Chinese culture. The Farewell wasn't a lesson on Chinese - and Chinese American - culture. It was a heartfelt story of family. You don't need to know Chinese culture to understand the difficulty of withholding sensitive information from the person you love most - especially when everyone else around already knows that same piece of information. 

I experienced something similar with my mom, when her mom was dying. My mom was on her way to India to see her mom. An uncle called me while my mom was in flight, to inform me my grandmother died. Everyone knew my grandmother died - except for her daughter, her eldest child. My mom called me when she arrived at her parents’ place. She told me no one would tell her about her mom during the 90-minute drive from Mumbai's airport to the suburbs, where her parents lived. And I felt horrible - not only because I knew several hours before she did, but also because I couldn't be there to support her. The emotions I went through, what she went through, transcend culture and ethnicity and race. This is where Ms. Wang showed her directorial chops and Awkwafina proved she is much more than comic relief.

And that’s the next question I have for you, Rachael. You’ve followed Awkwafina’s acting career. Did you relate to her character? What did you learn from her character’s journey, from goofy but loving granddaughter to poignant moralist who truly struggled with her Western ways (in an Eastern setting, at that)?

RG:I’ve watched Awkwafina’s rapping career turn into an acting career where her roles usually provided jarring comic relief. Her character in The Farewell, Billi, pivots to a more serious role, which was great to see her depth. Billi is relatable in the way millennials in the U.S. try and find their own identity while still trying to be true to their native traditions. Like Billi, I haven’t practiced my native tongue - Spanish - and when I do attempt to speak to older family members, my accent is rough, and my sentences are choppy and family members take me less seriously for it. And just as Billi observed and judged her family for lying to her beloved grandmother, I have found myself questioning my own family’s philosophies and morals. I think the biggest takeaway from the heroine's emotional journey is that sometimes there isn't a right way to do things, even if you think your new age thinking is a better way to solve problems. 

Maybe the best way to handle a loved one dying is to just be there rather than viewing conservative family morals with a negative lens.

‘The Farewell.’ Image courtesy IMDb

‘The Farewell.’ Image courtesy IMDb

PMR: Yes, the struggle is real, but so is the value of being present. We definitely learned such a lesson in Ms. Wang’s poignant narrative. You could have your culture shortcomings, but love is a universal language. Love is all we need, and as we see in The Farewell, cultural mores often create generational clashes, but love is always a constant. You could have your cultural shortcomings, conflicting ways of thinking and be absolutely sure of your progressive ways, but none of these concepts are greater than love - and that was one of the major takeaways of The Farewell

And let’s not forget the rest of the cast, who beautifully play roles properly depicting Chinese and Chinese American culture but doing so in a way we, as the audience, didn’t feel like we were being forced to learn the ways of the East or accept the arrogance of the West. The writing was thoughtful, and the presentation of cultural conflict was not subtle but not in-your-face. The comedy was well-timed to provide balance to the film’s otherwise heavy storyline. The Farewellis certainly a film you’d remember weeks, if not months or even years after you walked out of the theater (or finished watching on Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu).

I’d say The Farewell is also a win for diversity. Wouldn’t you say so, too, Rachael?

RG: I think immigrant identity is an increasingly popular and successful topic right now and it shows in the wave of Asian-American centered films gaining traction in the U.S. This film is a major leap for diversity with an all Asian-American cast, director and writer that can excel at navigating cultural differences all viewers can relate to- even if you're not an immigrant.

PMR: And that’s our take of The Farewell, which is distributed by A24 and released on July 12. Running time is at 98 minutes, with the dialog presented in English and Mandarin (yes, there are subtitles).

Ray Productions, Big Beach, Depth of Field and Kindred Spirit were the production companies behind The Farewell.

What We Liked: Dialog, relatable characters, emotionally charged storyline with the right amount of (timely) comic relief, Awkwafina’s deep dive as Billi, film scoring, overall direction.