Three things Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’ made me feel

 
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You’ll probably watch The Farewell for one of two reasons: You loved Awkwafina’s body of work about her superior vagina or you’re still enamoured by the film Crazy Rich Asians. Whatever your motive, The Farewell has struck a chord with audiences around the globe, topping Avengers: Endgame with a higher per-theatre average,  reaching $88,916 across four cinemas on its opening weekend. 

The Farewell features an all-Asian cast following the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a young Chinese-American who comes to terms with a family mandate to conceal her Nai Nai’s (Mandarin word for grandmother) terminal cancer. Apart from the shared on-screen appearance of actress Awkwafina, The Farewell is nothing like the extravagant box office hit Crazy Rich Asians that put representation on Hollywood’s agenda again. 

Directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is an exploration of filial duty versus the Western concept of the ‘self’. It’s littered with humble honesty and comedic banter that invites the audience to laugh at their own experience of navigating the tension between Eastern and Western identities. 

Lulu Wang’s story may be based on an actual lie but its narrative draws parallels with the reality many of us live in.

As an Australian-born Korean, I empathised with Billi’s frustration balancing duty and self-preservation. I recognised the concerning look on Nai Nai’s face as she tells Billi to ‘eat more’. Lulu Wang’s story may be based on an actual lie but its narrative draws parallels with the reality many of us live in. No spoilers here, but here are three things The Farewell made me feel.

1. Laughter validates our stories   

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At Dendy Opera Quays, I’m sharing the first glimpse of The Farewell with dozens of Australians celebrating Asian faces on the big screen. Tickets to the premiere of Lulu Wang’s acclaimed film sold out fast. In my row, seats are filled by Korean-Australians, a Vietnamese-Australian and a Khmer-Vietnamese Australian. 

As the movie starts, I think of the tourists outside. They’re soaking in our iconic harbour views without realising it’s the views inside this cinema tonight that offer a closer snapshot of Sydney’s diverse life and rich immigrant history. 

The opening scenes of the film are pensive and moody, but despite the bleak colours of China’s modern cityscape, it’s not long before ripples of laughter roar through the audience.

Hearing the crowd laugh is an empowering experience. We laugh when Nai Nai asks Billi if she has found a man to take care of her, we laugh when Billi’s uncle ugly-cries on the stage of a make-believe wedding, we laugh when Billi’s mum asks if she needs money again, we laugh when the Chinese bellhop demands to know how China fares against America. We laugh because as children of immigrants living in the West, we have been in the same conversation. We can laugh freely and loudly because it’s parts of our story that are on the screen. 

Having a chance to laugh at a slice of our own story validates the liveliness of our stories. Yes, there has been hurt, destruction and pain in our paths, but there is also room for laughter. 

These are the moments that representation in Hollywood and even the Australian media creates. Representation is not about having a ‘token’ Asian on a set or casting an Asian to play a takeaway shop owner, a cleaner or a tech whiz. Diverse representation celebrates different stories on the screen and creates moments of relatability and laughter.

Diverse representation celebrates different stories on the screen and creates moments of relatability and laughter. 

2. Always be learning 

Director Lulu Wang,    Sundance.org

Director Lulu Wang, Sundance.org

In one particular scene, the family are paying a visit to Billi’s late grandfather’s tombstone. Nai Nai instructs the family to bow three times for every prayer that is offered up to their ancestors. Food is laid out and paper iPhones are burned as another gift. 

I’m confused but I overhear a woman in the seat next to me say, “It’s so typical. My family is the same!” 

When the movie wraps up, I ask her what the paper iPhones represent. They explain the ceremonial value of offering ancestors valuable items. After watching The Farewell, I’ve learned a little more about the dynamics, cultural values and religious practices that many Chinese-Australians understand. 

3. Diversity is more than a trend 

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The success of Crazy Rich Asians as the highest-grossing rom-com in the last decade was a symbolic step forward for Asian representation in popular culture. With the first majority-Asian cast in 25 years, the film showed the world that Asian characters can be rich, sexy, strong and funny– correcting decades of Hollywood portrayals of Asian kung-fu fighters and prostitutes. Hollywood's shifting appetite towards Asian American stories continued with Always Be My Maybe and Searching, released shortly after.   

It would set the scene for Lulu Wang’s film but after many discouraging attempts to finance The Farewell, she came head to head with the pressures of Hollywood to whitewash her story with a prominent white character. 

Wang stuck with the original story. Its success at the Sundance festival sparked a bidding war that finally won a deal with A24 for $7 million. The Farewell should be celebrated for its authenticity with 75 per cent of the film in Mandarin, but there is a long road ahead before the film industry can celebrate its diverse representation. There still remains a need for stories featuring South Asians, Southeast Asians and mixed-race Asians.  

In an interview with IndieWire, Wang says, “It’s important to see it not as a trend or the cool thing of the moment but to be open to stories that are representative of the diaspora in America, that are actually reflective of what this country looks like,” she said. “That isn’t just diversity for the sake of diversity.”

Support and celebrate The Farewell in cinemas across Australia this week! As you catch a glimpse of the relatable stories on screen, it’s important to note that there is still a long way to go until the stories written and told in this country are truly inclusive.


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About the contributor

Shona is a Korean-Australian that writes and snaps about minority experiences, offbeat travel stories and inspirational people. She’s completing her Masters degree in human rights and when she’s not working on a passion project, you’ll find her at the dog park with a coffee in hand.