January 13, 2020

Asian Americans Deserve Better Than "The Farewell"

"The Farewell" offers a heartwarming message about accepting those you love even if you don’t completely understand their actions.

Courtesy of A24

Asian-American films are ascendant. Hot on the heels of the box office domination of Crazy Rich Asians, Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell is the latest entry in this emergent category of cinema to win the recognition, both critical and commercial, of the gatekeepers of American entertainment culture. Its most recent and significant accolade is the Golden Globe for Best Actress, awarded to Awkwafina for her performance as Billi, a Chinese American tormented by her liminal status in American society. This is only the most recent notch in the belt for a film that’s enjoyed near-unanimous critical praise. According to this consensus, The Farewell performs a crucial social service by sensitively exploring the Asian-American identity through the framework of a serious indie drama. However, it's worth questioning why this narrative has become so prominent in the first place, and why a thoroughly pedestrian and unremarkable film has somehow managed to dupe so many people. 

The Farewell is a film that’s more interested in telegraphing, rather than truly exploring, its Asianness. It regurgitates all the pieties that Asian Americans love to repeat about themselves: Yellow people have better food, yellow people throw better parties, and, above all, yellow people care more about family. It’s not as if there isn’t a kernel of truth to each of these propositions—but the film insists on them so stridently, in such a flatly uncritical way, that they end up as little more than empty signifiers designed to flatter the sensibilities of their audience. The film doesn’t explore the intricacies and difficulties of Chinese culture so much as it merely displays them. Its deeply cynical strategy is to transact in this iconography of Asianness as a way of exploiting the Asian-American hunger for recognition, while simultaneously failing to do justice to the Asian-American experience.  

The central example of the film’s obsession with invoking Chinese cultural practices is “the big lie,” told by the main character’s family to her dying grandmother, that propels the narrative. That lie, we’re informed, stems from the essential difference between the Chinese and the American conception of family. For the Chinese, “one’s life belongs to the family,” so it’s the family’s responsibility to bear the grandmother’s suffering on her behalf. But while the collision course between East and West instantiated by this situation is clearly meant to serve as a proxy for a broader exploration of the differences between the two cultures, the fact that the main character Billi simply acquiesces to her family’s request, with hardly any pushback at all, thwarts this project before it can even begin. She delivers some perfunctory objections, asking, “Do you think it’s wrong to lie to her?” while looking very concerned indeed—only to drop the question immediately. The film fails to involve us in what must be a tumultuous internal struggle on Billi’s part—it only tells us the outcome.

This utter neglect of the main character’s interiority is especially frustrating given the richness of the subject that Wang gestures towards: namely, Asian-American alienation. I’m not denying that this subject is an urgent one that deserves to be explored on the big screen. What I am denying is that Wang has the cinematic chops to deliver on what she promises. Her most egregious deficiency in this respect is her evident failure to internalize the very first lesson of film school: Show, don’t tell. The film doesn’t portray Billi’s internal struggle so much as it flatly informs us that one is taking place.  

The primary way it does so is through its many labored and forced monologues. This is a gratingly verbal film, yet devoid of any of cinematic dialogue’s pleasures—there’s none of the sparkling wit of Hawks or the psychological subtlety of Rohmer. Instead, it serves as an instrument to shove neatly pre-packaged ideology into the mouths of its characters, pro- and anti-Western alike. These monologues are the staging ground for the film’s supposed exploration of the tensions between East and West, but they advance the film’s thematic concerns in an artlessly transparent fashion.   

The dinner scene with Billi’s extended family is a particularly egregious example. It plays like a carousel of opinions, with characters mechanically trading observations about the pros and cons of Western assimilation. The blandness of their observations is matched by the blandness of Wang’s visual style. She films the scene in lazy medium shots that depict the characters delivering their takes with all of the visual intelligence of a CNN segment of talking heads. In no way, shape, or form are the artistic resources of cinema mobilized to augment the emotional stakes of the conversation. 

"The film’s overreliance on dialogue points to a broader problem: The delicacy and nuance that Wang’s subject requires outstrip her skills as a filmmaker. The psychological conflict of the Asian-American’s competing allegiances plays out on an interior terrain, but this film doesn’t know how to provide access to Billi's interiority. That the film can only reproduce, in the most straightforward way, the words uttered by the other characters that surround her is precisely why Billi’s surrender to her family’s request feels so shallow. The result is that she appears to change her mind on a whim—or, worse, not even to have a mind at all. The film's incessant talkiness reflects its origins as an NPR podcast, but I see no evidence that Wang’s story is better served as cinema."

More perniciously, the film is uninterested in exploring the emotional nuances of Billi’s predicament because that’s just not what it’s after. In reality, the film is little more than a collection of calculated gambits to appeal to the Asian-American ego. We see this when Billi tearfully confesses to her mother that she wants to move to China and that she was right all along about the perils of Western individualism. Life in the States as a Chinese American is just too hard for Billi to take anymore. For the Asian American watching the film, this functions as an implicit acknowledgement of the superiority of Eastern cultural logic. In other words, it’s an endorsement of the uniquely Asian component of their bifurcated Asian-American identity: What distinguishes them from Americans becomes a source of strength and dignity. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with this claim in and of itself—the problem is that in the context of this film specifically, it comes at the expense of a meaningful exploration of that identity. Wang can’t, or won’t, say anything meaningful about the serious issues that result from the cultural bifurcation of the self; she just gestures toward their existence in a self-serving gambit to solicit her audience’s approval.   

The counterpart to the Asian American’s internal struggle with their conflicted identity is an external battle that’s constantly being waged against the presuppositions ascribed onto them by others. Wesley Yang characterizes the world’s default attitude towards Asian Americans in this way: “you [are] presumptively a nobody, a mute and servile figure.” Against this backdrop, it’s understandable that, for many Asian Americans, seeing the particulars of their lives playing out on the big screen would be cause for excitement. It’s a way of extracting recognition from a world that otherwise refuses to supply it. But the danger in indulging this pleasure too excitedly is that it will dupe us into slackening our critical faculties—and it is precisely this possibility that The Farewell preys upon. 

What would a cinematically literate portrayal of the Asian-American condition look like? Luckily, we don’t have to imagine, because one already exists. Wayne Wang’s low-budget indie Chan Is Missing (1982) concerns the attempts of two Chinese Americans, a cab driver named Jo and his nephew Steve, to track down their friend Chan, who has disappeared with a bundle of their money. Their voyage into the nooks and crannies of Chinatown soon takes on an existential overtone, as the object of their investigation gradually shifts from their missing money to the essence of the man who took it. It turns out that Chan, like The Farewell’s Billi, found himself caught between the push and pull of assimilation and cultural fidelity. The multifarious portraits of the man that emerge—radical political activist, bookish computer technician, unassimilable Chinese national—reflect the fragmentation, and ultimately the illusory nature, of the “Chinese-American” identity itself.  

The unrecognized status of Chan Is Missing only confirms that the recent clamor for more Asian-American representation is not a desire for representation itself. If that were the case, then Chan Is Missing would be enjoying its day in the sun as a classic of Asian-American art. Its continued neglect reveals the true desire of The Farewell’s partisans. What they want is representation of a very particular sort: namely, representation in the circles of power. In the realm of movies, power is represented by Hollywood and its big stars, big budgets, and big box office returns; increasingly, indie dramas (the specialty of The Farewell’s distributor A24) have risen to a position of power, too. Crazy Rich Asians cornered the former market, and now The Farewell has cornered the latter one. The film’s claim to cultural prominence has been further cemented by Awkwafina’s Golden Globe win. With this award, it looks like the film’s partisans are finally getting what they want: the assimilation of an East-Asian identity into the structures of mainstream commercial prestige. But is this something worth wanting in the first place? To me, it seems like nothing more than garden-variety status envy masquerading as political virtue. The end goal should be to surpass mainstream artistic mediocrity—not to imitate it in the name of liberation. Asian Americans deserve better than that.