Director Lulu Wang offers a heartfelt look at Asian-American life

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Farewell
RPL Film Theatre

Oct. 11–12

As much as I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, hailing the film as a triumph of representation gave me pause. Sure, an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood movie is something to celebrate. But the characters were obscenely wealthy so what the film offered was a slice of “one per cent” life.

The Farewell is more successful at depicting the Asian-American experience. It transcends culture clash shenanigans to show the melancholy that accompanies immigrants throughout their lives.

Awkwafina is Billi, a burnt-out New York millennial with more debts than prospects. Just as she discovers she’s been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship, she’s informed her grandmother in China has terminal cancer. She’s also told the family has decided to keep the diagnosis from her, certain the news would hasten her death.

To justify the entire family arriving in Changchun for a final goodbye, a shotgun wedding is concocted. Billi doesn’t agree with the plan, but shows up anyway, intending to drop truth-bombs. She’s frustrated, though, by her family’s staunch opposition and her grandmother’s blissful obliviousness.

Keeping a diagnosis from a patient feels unethical. But writer/director Lulu Wang makes a solid case. Speaking the truth here only benefits one person. That Billi is the most American of the bunch is not lost on anyone, which sparks a broader exploration of the dichotomy between individual and community values in relation to Western and Eastern civilizations. A product of both worlds, Billi comes to regret not being part of something bigger than herself.

While The Farewell is humane and relatable, Wang seems at odds with camera technique and narrative structure. Rather than let a scene breathe, she throws in a cut for good measure, like a laidback Michael Bay.

A dinner scene sees the family dispense with the usual bickering to have an honest discussion about sticking to one’s country vs. exploring a better future abroad. The Farewell reminds us that the callous statement “go back to where you came from” is not only racist, it demonstrates a woeful lack of empathy. Nobody leaves home without a good reason.