Last year, the singular Asian movie in the U.S. was Crazy Rich Asians, a fact agreed upon by public consensus. This year, the choice hasn’t been so easy. Always Be My Maybe (starring Ali Wong and Randall Park) made waves in the Asian American community as one of the first American rom-coms to star Asians. Bold and with appearances from familiar faces like Keanu Reeves, it’s an obvious frontrunner. But the film that I feel best represents my Asian American experience is The Farewell. A small film with a budget of only $3 million, it may not look like much, but it has real feeling and soul.
Directed by Chinese director Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a sobering story about how a grandmother’s terminal diagnosis leads the entire family to visit her from abroad and, out of love, hide the terrible truth. Perhaps what makes the premise and the ensuing drama so magnetic is the unpretentious reality infused it is infused with.
The Farewell takes place mostly in the industrial city of Changchun, China. Like many places in China, in Changchun, you’ll want to boil your water before drinking it – something we’re reminded of as soon as the family arrives at the hotel. The hotel rooms are decorated in something not quite as cold and impersonal as an American hotel, but there’s still a faded grandeur. All told, we arrive at an unmistakably Chinese setting, with most of the movie’s dialogue being in Mandarin (with English subtitles for a non-native speaking audience).
And yet we view all of this through a distinctly Chinese American perspective. Billi, the granddaughter and protagonist (played by Awkwafina), occasionally fumbles with her Mandarin in a way that I can relate to. Like Billi, I can scrape by in light conversation, but anything deeper than that can pose some major translation issues. More than simply the language barrier, the cultural barrier is one that proves challenging. When her family decides to not tell the grandmother about her diagnosis, Billi feels like the family’s deceit is inherently wrong and that it won’t bring about true closure. However, her more Chinese parents and uncle and aunt make it clear that not saying anything is a blessing: the grandmother will be able to live out her final days peacefully, not fearing death.
The differences and similarities between Chinese and Chinese Americans are at the heart of the movie. The Farewell demonstrates how Chinese Americans dance that line between Chinese and American, landing them in a no-man’s land. Moreover, the movie answers the hard question of which to choose: You can choose both, and though it can sometimes be alienating, being American and being Chinese aren’t incompatible with each other.
By talking about death, The Farewell succeeds in being a celebration of life. Its authentic presentation of the lives of average Asian Americans makes it shine brightly as one of the best Asian American movies of 2019 and perhaps, as one of the best movies in 2019 in general.