It’s Not All That . .
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Positive Asian American representation in mainstream American pop culture is so rare that I want to give any effort encouragement. “The Farewell,” a movie about a Chinese American woman reconnecting with her family in China, has all the ingredients for an honestly insightful and dramatic story that would resonate not only with Asian Americans, but with every audience, regardless of ethnicity. But, I will probably make fans of this movie angry. To me, it overpromises and underdelivers.
Billi, played by Awkwafina, is a blunt and brash New York City Chinese American who returns to her birthplace in mainland China. Her Nai Nai (grandmother, played by Zhao Shuzen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The extended family wants to get together for a final farewell, but they don’t want to tell her that she is dying. So they create a cover story: Billi’s cousin, who lives in Japan, is getting engaged so the gathering is in order to host a banquet for the upcoming wedding. The tension is between Billi, who feels that the family should tell Nai Nai the truth, and the rest of the family, who believes that not telling Nai Nai allows her to live the rest of her life without emotional sadness. Instead, the entire family will shoulder the sorrow. It’s a clash of culture, East and West, conflicted within Billi. The story is based on director/writer Lulu Wang’s own experience.
The movie received rave reviews. Even the cynical movie website, Rotten Tomatoes, gave it a 100 percent positive rating, with a 91 percent positive audience review.
So my wife and I walked into the theater expecting a heavy-duty crying and laughing and emotionally draining “chick flick” (as my wife called it: She complains that whenever I choose a movie, I pick the ones with superheroes, car chases and/or lots of explosions, so she wanted to see a “chick flick” instead). I, instead, found myself gamely struggling to keep my attention focused to the end, and she fell asleep for the last 15 minutes because it was, as she said, “So slowwwwwwwwwww!”
To be sure, ANY positive and truthful Asian American representation in pop culture is a good thing. But that’s a really low bar to hurdle. It’s almost condescending, especially when you consider that some really great Asian American movies have hit the screens in the deep and recent past, such as “Crazy Rich Asians” (with Awkwafina in a hilarious supporting role, where she tore up the scenery), and the even earlier “Joy Luck Club,” based on the novel by Amy Tan. Those movies stand on their own merits alone, without resorting to being Asian American for any special leg up.
The movie feels like an “art house” movie, done on a modest budget, with workmanlike camerawork that holds no surprises. The pacing is, indeed, slow, again at a kind of artsy type pace, but there are no revelations, big or small, in the script to justify the slow pace. The story moves from New York to China, to the little moments leading up to the big party, with Billi struggling to keep her mouth shut. There are lots of close up shots of Billi/Awkwafina sulking. But as a star vehicle, the movie shuts down Awkwafina’s biggest strength: an exuberant, off-the-wall comedian. The supporting cast, due to the scripting, are like character-less background props. We never get inside the hearts of nearly everyone else. What is Billi’s cousin’s Japanese fiancée’s impressions about marrying into such a big and VERY Chinese family? Billi has a couple of shouting matches with her parents, but they seem stilted and don’t create much of a change or revelation in the storyline. Character development never happens with what could have been a marvelous ensemble acting group.
Just about the only actor who escapes the flat scripting is Zhao Shuzen, who, as the elderly Nai Nai, is irrepressible. She lights up the screen, even if the script doesn’t give her all that much to play with. That is really odd, because in the two movies I’ve seen her in (“Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8”), Awkwafina displayed real star power. Given a broader, wilder, riskier script, Awkwafina and Zhao could have torn up the movie together in a tragicomedy.
There is a danger in clutching one’s own biography too tightly when creating autobiographical art, as the director seems to have done. There are scenes that feel like a National Geographic documentary on modern-day China and Chinese customs. The way China was depicted as having gone through incredible modernization, yet still retaining some ancient traditions, fascinated me. But when you are telling a story, when you want to pull some emotional heartstrings, sometimes you have to take the raw materials of reality and then reform them to make it less literal in order to reach a greater truth. And, as Shakespeare knew all too well, tragedy is even more poignant when you insert comedy. Otherwise, it just feels like sulking.
Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. The Waialua High School and Cornell University alumnus also spent 10 years teaching art and digital art at a private high school. He now teaches digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.