In a cramped theater, at the emotional climax of Lulu Wang’s (“Posthumous”) “The Farewell,” an entire row bursts into laughter. Those on the aisle and a family sitting below the main speaker join in, too. This was not the first moment in the film when the laughter of the audience was divided. It was as if the theater were a game of Battleship — the board scattered with red hits and white misses. That was the key to deciphering the uneven responses: the white misses.
Although the A24-produced trailer suggests an English-language film, “The Farewell” has a mostly Mandarin script. While subtitles, in theory, can translate a film, in reality, the intonation and subtleties of a dialect are lost. Plus, who can really concentrate when they’re focused on reading? Little jokes failed to land or went right over the heads of some of the viewers, like a quip about Asians loving baijiu, a type of hard liquor. For myself and my family, this line about baijiu immediately brought to mind our month in China, when every meal was accompanied with endless toasts of the most fiery shots. I pictured my uncles, red-faced and smiling, and recalled the warm feeling of extended family gathered around a spinning table. For non-Asian, and perhaps even non-Chinese, viewers, though, this became just another piece of untranslated text. But do you really need to be Chinese to know when it’s appropriate to laugh?
“The Farewell” chronicles a family’s attempt to hide from their matriarch, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), her terminal diagnosis. When Billi (Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”) learns of her grandmother’s ailing health, she feels a responsibility to tell her the truth against the wishes of the family. Everyone returns to China for a goodbye reunion under the guise of celebrating a wedding. As the burden of pretending grows, each questions whether lying or telling the truth is the right thing to do. While the film points out the differences between East and West, especially concerning one’s place in a family, ultimately “The Farewell” deals with a universal theme: what we owe those we love.
“The Farewell” comes on the heels of a wave of Asian-American films, most notably last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” Unlike my experience with the former, when I watched “Crazy Rich Asians” in theaters, the entire audience laughed in sync. Both films boast comedian powerhouses in their leads as well as scene-stealing character actors in Ken Jeong (“Ride Along 2”) as a rich socialite in filmmaker Jon Chu’s (“Now You See Me 2”) adaptation and Tzi Ma (“Arrival”) as a conflicted father in Wang’s semi-autobiographical feature. The punch lines are all perfectly timed and the wit sharp and clever. Nevertheless, while “Crazy Rich Asians” introduces Eastern sensibilities — necessary as a predecessor for “The Farewell” — ultimately, it westernizes its material. “The Farewell,” on the other hand, makes no apologies.
“Crazy Rich Asians” hits big, relatable themes: the tradition of cooking as a family shown through making dumplings, parents’ disapproval of their children’s significant others and a recognizable rom-com format. But “The Farewell” aims for the more intimate aspects of Chinese family dynamics and heritage. While “Crazy Rich Asians” hides behind extravaganza and impressive set design, “The Farewell” strips down its material. The latter makes it clear that it does not intend to paint a rosy picture of China when Billi arrives to find newly constructed apartment buildings rising out of the ground like tombstones. Sure, there are dragon dancers and bright red lights, but, for the most part, the film takes place in Nai Nai’s quiet, modest apartment complex and a nearby hotel. “The Farewell” is less concerned with presenting an exotic culture and, as a result, more successfully digs into the Chinese-American struggle.
“Crazy Rich Asians” made me proud to see myself physically represented on screen, but Wang’s debut is a true cultural and emotional representation of the Chinese-American experience. For this reason, it is no surprise that those without the same background as the characters failed to pick up on cues of when to laugh. Rather than taking offense, I felt a sense of satisfaction: There’s solidarity in laughter, and “The Farewell” creates a space for this camaraderie.