Directed by Lulu Wang, Big Beach Films
USA; China release 2019, USA release 2018; 100 minutes
Mandarin and English with English subtitles
Shortly after I moved from Changchun to Beijing in 1998, I began studying one on one with a Chinese professor at a local teachers college. On the first day of class he told me, quite matter-of-factly that, since he was not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, we could talk about anything. He wasn’t kidding. I learned so much about Chinese society and culture from him, thanks to his unique ability to cut through jargon and slogans and talk objectively about China.
I’ll never forget the time that he leaned across the table and said to me, “Zhou Ning (my Chinese name), you must remember that in China there’s always something else that is really going on!” That may have been the single most important thing I have ever learned about China.
This truth is so poignantly illustrated in the delightful movie The Farewell. Written by Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang, the movie tells the story of a Chinese family dealing with, in a very Chinese way, the news that the matriarch of the clan (nainai-grandma) is terminally ill. As it unfolds, it becomes obvious that there are layers upon layers of other things that are really going on.
Grandma thinks she has a bad cold; what is really going on is that she has stage 4 lung cancer, but no one (including the doctor) wants to tell her.
Her family members, some of whom now live in Japan and the United States, travel back to Changchun, ostensibly for a wedding. But what is really going on is they want to see grandma before she dies.
They hold an elaborate wedding banquet for Grandma’s grandson and Japanese wife; what is really going on is a chance for everyone to express their love and gratitude for Grandma.
The main character, Billi, her granddaughter who lives in New York, thinks that she is fully American; what is really going on is a journey of rediscovering her Chinese identity as she struggles over the culturally appropriate way to express her love for her grandmother. Tell her the truth or play along?
By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help wondering if Grandma herself knew that something else was really going on. Did she know she was ill and why everyone was really there but decided to play along herself?
Of special interest to me is the fact that that movie is set in and was filmed in Changchun, the northeastern city that I called home between 1990 and 1998. I was anxious to see what it looks like now (my last visit was eight or nine years ago). Many city shots were unrecognizable to me, but the scenes in the neighborhood where Grandma lived were familiar. I spotted a street sign that told me it wasn’t far from my old neighborhood. That made me smile.
This movie has something for everyone. If you have lived in China, it will make you homesick. If you have Chinese friends in your home country, it offers wonderful insights into Chinese culture. If you are a Chinese-American (or ethnically Chinese in another country), the themes will be familiar. And if you’ve never been to China, and don’t know any Chinese people, you’ll enjoy the heart-warming story.
Finally, the movie is based on a true story (or an “actual lie,” as is noted at the beginning) of the filmmaker’s family. She told the story during an interview for the NPR program, This American Life, in April of 2016. You can listen to that interview here.
If it is playing in a theater near you, go see it!
Image credit: The Farewell trailer.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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