Lulu Wang’s Golden Globe-nominated The Farewell will ring many bells for those trapped between two cultures

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 04, 2020 12:54:28 IST

In Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, a Caucasian/Chinese gay couple in Manhattan pretends to be straight for the benefit of the parents of the Chinese man, who are visiting.

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a sort of spiritual successor, and it travels in the other direction of the globe. Here, it’s about a woman in China who’s got cancer, and she cannot be told she’s dying, so her family from all over gathers in her home for one last... see that title again!

 Lulu Wang’s Golden Globe-nominated The Farewell will ring many bells for those trapped between two cultures

A still from The Farewell

Like in Lee’s movie, everyone pretends, everyone plays a part. Lee’s movie was more about prejudices and assumptions, less about differences in cultures. The FarewellGolden Globe-nominated for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy (Awkwafina, as the US-based Billi) and Best Foreign Language Film – is more about an American woman grappling with Chinese traditions.

There is, for instance, the reason no one wants to tell Mrs Zhao (Billi’s grandmother, who she calls Nai Nai) she is dying. At the hospital, Billi meets the doctor. He’s studied in the UK, so he speaks English. When he says the cancer is quite advanced, Billi asks if they should tell Nai-Nai. The doctor says, “In her situation, most families in China would choose not to tell her. When my grandmother had cancer, my family didn’t tell her.” Billi thinks that this is a lie, that this is wrong. The doctor, a man educated in the “West” but still rooted enough in the “East”, says: “I mean if it’s for good, it’s not really a lie. I mean, it’s still a lie. It’s a good lie." (The film opens with the note: “Based on an actual lie.”)

Billi was brought to the US when she was very young, so her values are more... American. She tells her family, “You know, in America, we couldn’t do this. We wouldn’t be allowed to. It’d be... illegal.” But her grandmother’s sister says that Nai Nai herself did something similar when her husband had cancer. She told him the truth only when she knew he was close to the end. “When your Nai Nai reaches that point, I’ll tell her too.” The logic is this, and it goes back to something Billi’s father told her before they left: “Chinese people have a saying. When people get cancer they die. It’s not cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”

The Farewell is a nice, sweet watch, very easy to take in – but I doubt it stands a chance against heavyweights like Les Misérables, Pain and Glory, Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the other nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s too slight, too generic – and maybe this, in itself, is a topic for a column. (If a warm-hearted movie does the feel-good thing well, then should it be judged against heavier, more formally realised, more auteur-istic dramas?)

But the questions it raises are interesting, "because (of many) of us are like Billi," caught between two cultures. I’m not just talking about NRIs. It’s even those of us who live in India, but have grown up with “Western” influences.

It’s the whole individuality versus community thing. How do you balance “I want my space” with “I want my family”? Billi loves her Nai Nai. She lives with just her parents in the US, and she aches for family. One of the few good memories of her childhood were the summers at Nai Nai’s. She would catch dragonflies in the garden with a friend. And then they moved to the US, and everything changed. Everyone was gone. It was just the three of them. She tells her mother, “I wanted to believe that it was a good thing, but all I saw was fear in your eyes. And I was confused and scared constantly because you never told me what was going on.”

Awkwafina in a still from The Farewell

Awkwafina in a still from The Farewell

What lies unsaid is this: Would an “American” mother, presumably more in touch with her “feelings” than a Chinese mother who keeps everything inside, have guided Billi more sensitively through these turbulent times? Billi’s mother says they did what they thought was best for her. What they thought. Billi had no say. It’s “Eastern” child-rearing wisdom passed down the ages. But later, as Billi’s parents became more “American” – or perhaps when Billi learnt that she could rebel because she was “American” now – they allowed her to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. NRIs, I assume, will identify very strongly with this movie.

My favourite passage of dialogue comes from Billi’s uncle: “There are things you must understand. You guys moved to the West long ago. You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family. Society. You want to tell Nai Nai the truth because you’re afraid to take responsibility for her. Because it’s too big of a burden. If you tell her then you don’t have to feel guilty. We’re not telling Nai Nai because it’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her.”

I was moved to tears by the way he put it. This man isn’t in China, either. He moved out to make his career – but he moved to Japan, which is still the “East”. He is still in touch with his roots in a more organic way than his brother, Billi’s father. Later, he says, “My brother and I have not been home at the same time in over 25 years. Today, I’m very happy.” How true this is for so many of us. We grow up. We move out. And then, we are no longer family in the “Eastern” sense. 

I admit I’m probably romanticising this, for even in India, today, the big fat joint family is not a given anymore. That’s why Billi’s plight will resonate with even those of us who live in one city in India and have family elsewhere.

The Farewell isn’t about distance. It’s about culture. It’s about connections. And it has a great thought from Nai Nai, when she realises Billi hasn’t got a scholarship she’s been waiting for. “I’ve walked the path of life and I must tell you you’ll encounter difficulties, but you have to keep an open mind... Life is not just about what you do. It’s more about how you do it.” That’s a solid note on which to begin the new year, the new decade.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Images from Twitter.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2020 09:10:09 IST