‘The Farewell’ – A Culturally Significant Rarity in Western Cinema
May 12, 2020
Jasmine Ryu Won Kang is an incoming second-year student at the University of Toronto, majoring in biochemistry and immunology.
It indeed comes somewhat as a surprise that a film spoken predominantly in Chinese garnered an overwhelming wave of support and praise from countries all over the world. Although “The Farewell” explores an Asian-American’s difficulties in reconciling the cultural differences between her two worlds, it is emotionally accessible to anyone who’s moved away from a place they consider home. This struggle – to feel an honest sense of belonging in a new environment while maintaining a connection with one’s heritage – is crucially relevant in a culturally diverse country such as Canada. As director Lulu Wang pointed out herself, there are surprisingly few films that explore this nuanced and ubiquitous hardship – it’s much too often that we see characters entirely assimilated into their new culture or completely unable to adjust to a foreign way of life.
The universal struggle for belonging
It is not just when we move to a different country, however, that this struggle surfaces. Willingly or not, we are often placed in circumstances in which we must adapt to new cultures, such as working at a new job or moving to a different city. Aptly put by acclaimed author and surgeon Atul Gawande, culture has immense “inertia.” It then logically follows that, more often than not, a person must adapt to their surroundings, rather than hope for the other way around; however, this is much easier said than done. The omnipresence of this struggle for belonging in our modern world may be a salient factor in understanding how and why the film feels so close to home to so many diverse peoples.
Stock characters and Asian representation
Cultural minorities have rarely functioned as more than mere “bit parts” in the history of Western cinema. Characters belonging to these groups are conveniently developed and cast as one-dimensional beings that embody certain archetypal features of those groups. That is, the notion of stereotype is too often used as a way to cut down the necessary time to thoroughly develop believable personalities. As powerful influencers of social opinion, films should strive to fairly portray minority populations with the level of depth that they deserve. “The Farewell” does a phenomenal job at doing away with this tradition and creates complex and identifiable characters who, simultaneously, would identify as part of a minority Asian population in America. After all, the film is based on a true story, or as Lulu Wang put it, “an actual lie.” As a result, the characters candidly feel like real people, and the challenges they face are all too familiar, even to a multiethnic audience.
An oversimplification of culture and immigration
There are many scenes in “The Farewell” that highlight the cultural quirks of the protagonist’s country of origin – China. Although I have a Korean background myself and am limited in my ability to judge the reasonableness of the movie’s representation of Chinese culture, there were a few aspects that I found jarring. The film tended to focus quite heavily on featuring age-old traditions and themes – tai-chi, filial duty, and the like. While these traditions remain highly relevant, the cultural fabric of China, like all other countries, is far from stagnant. “The Farewell” paints a debatably outdated and unquestionably over-simplistic picture of daily life in this country.
Although it most likely does so unintentionally, the film also perpetuates the notion that “home” is necessarily an immigrant’s country of origin. This is certainly the case for the main character in the film, Billi – although she lives and works in New York, “home,” for her, is China. However, where “home” is found is a fundamentally individual decision and it is, in fact, one of the most painful and common struggles that immigrants face when others make this crucial decision on their behalf. It may very well be the case that a Chinese immigrant in New York thinks of New York as home. While Billi’s story is touching and poignant, it represents some, but not all, of the lived experiences of real immigrants.