The Farewell is one giant feminist metaphor (and it’s fantastic)
You’re going to see “The Farewell” at the one indie theatre in town. After all, it’s important to support independent film and movie theatres that don’t frontload their films with 25 minutes of trailers blasted at a deafening volume. Of course it’s also important to vote with your dollars where majority minority casts are concerned. Lulu Wang’s film that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Festival has all the marks of an art house film including subtitles and a cast of relative unknowns — including her own great aunt cast in a key role.
But this is no esoteric film. “The Farewell” is not the kind of gauzy motion picture that can only be unpacked over a lifetime of hypotheticals and epiphanies.
Wang wrote and directed this film based on her own family story, as told to This American Life in which news of a fatal diagnosis was withheld from the one person for whom it most pertained: her grandmother who was dying of cancer.
As much as “The Farewell” is steeped in Chinese traditions, East versus West cultural conundrums, and half of the script is translated from Mandarin, this is a film with universal appeal. I’m a white, American-born woman in my thirties. I saw it with my ethnically Korean, Canadian-born husband. We are well past our quarter life crises, and have seen several of our grandparents buried. “The Farewell” still resonated and I expect it will continue to strike common notes throughout our lives.
One of “The Farewell”’s major themes is the importance of digging deep to find one’s inner strength. Awkwafina, who plays the lead of Billi, is constantly looking at a world looking back at her, and her response, rather than to stare back into the abyss, is to turn her head at the world that was, reflecting on her upbringing in China and her move to America.
Throughout “The Farewell,” a metaphor bears out as Billi learns to reckon with her inability to launch. “How did you get here?” asks Nai Nai when Billi surprises everyone by showing up in China via New York. “I swam,” jokes Billi, but the facetiousness belies the floundering she is doing in life, having just been denied a Guggenheim Fellowship, falling behind on rent, bumming money off her parents, and running up credit card bills.
We watch as the elevator will not work for Billi, her umbrella malfunctions, and mysteriously baby birds keep alighting in the rooms she occupies. She must face the fact that her plans to fly require resilient wings she may not yet have developed.
Who hasn’t experienced this wobble while navigating young adulthood? There are seasons where everyone seems to be asking ad infinitum the same questions about our future plans, when all you can do is long for simpler times — oh for the days of when so little was asked of you. You don’t have to have made a global relocation or grown up eating meat pies to feel a kinship with Billi who wants so much to be mothered and to feel the full spectrum of her feelings. Surely all of us have wanted at some point to freeze time as in an endless embrace with her grandmother, Nai Nai, in order to take stock and plot one’s next moves.
Given the largely patriarchal structure of Chinese culture that persists, “The Farewell” is also, perhaps surprisingly, feminist. Nai Nai is not a meek elder. In spite of being shielded from the truth about her health from her entire family, she proceeds to shepherd and uplift each of her family members, steering the ship of conversation and celebration wherever possible. She celebrates Billi’s independence and praises self-sufficiency in a woman. She advocates using one’s own strong, serious voice and pities the fools who are unable to use theirs.
The men? The men in this film are largely a bunch of impotents. They cry at inconvenient times.
They can’t hold their liquor. They are, in the case of Nai Nai’s second husband, useless except when it is time to eat. They lend nothing but their presence.
The women in “The Farewell” are the decision-makers. While they are wielding chopping knives and chopsticks, they are also cutting through the bullshit that tends to hold us back and, ironically, muddles our view of what is real and true and lasting.
When Wang was initially trying to garner support for the film that became “The Farewell,” she sensed that companies wanted to shoehorn her idea into a Chinese version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But where “The Farewell” is no Greek-turned-Chinese wedding, the wisdom of the mother of the bride in “Greek Wedding” translates well here, too: “Women are the neck that turns the head.” Put more aptly, women are the jet engines that launch the plane.