The Farewell is a movie about an Asian family, directed by an Asian woman and starring a female Asian lead. If that seemed like too many Asians, trust me, it’s not.
The movie centers around Billi, a young woman living in New York. She and her parents immigrated to America when she was six years old, leaving their family in China behind. As the movie begins, the family discovers that Billi’s grandmother has Stage 4 lung cancer. In Eastern Asian culture, it is common not to share such news with the afflicted person; this is exactly what they decide to do, and the entire family gathers in China for the first time in many years to say goodbye under the ruse of a wedding. This causes an issue, as Billi’s western values meddle with her conscience, leading to a tense conflict within the family and also within herself as an Asian American woman.
Growing up, I have had little representation in the media. Mulan was the closest thing I had to a mainstream movie featuring a female Asian protagonist– and she was animated. Seeing real people up on the big screen that look like me, that have the same culture and mannerisms as me and my family: that was truly remarkable. I found myself relating to Billi and her family in very profound ways. As my mother pointed out after the film, the story they sold was real.
In one scene, the family is gathered at dinner when Billi’s father asserts that his family is American. His brother shouts back that no matter where he lives he will always be Chinese; his values and culture are so ingrained in him that he could never deny it. This is something I have struggled with personally. Growing up in America has left me with the knowledge that I am an American, and yet I will always have my Korean identity that marks me as different. The movie was so accurate in portraying the dissonance between the two cultures and this inner dilemma that it could truly only have been directed by someone who has experienced it.
Billi’s character is also wildly relatable. Every little detail about her I could find in myself or my mother, who moved to America from Korea when she was in her twenties. We even share a story– when her grandfather died in China, she was forced to remain in the U.S. for school while her family went to visit. This exact scenario happened to me when I was in fourth grade. It is the shared experiences throughout the film that add to its accurate tone.
Perhaps most striking of all the similarities is the fact that my family has told this exact lie before. When my mother’s grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, the family decided not to tell him. The prevalence of hiding this news in eastern Asia is due to the importance placed on family, which the movie explains. There, family is a shared responsibility; rather than make Billi’s grandmother deeply sad for the remainder of her life, the family takes on the burden of the news together and shields her from the truth so that she can live happily.
The movie includes powerful symbolism and cinematically gorgeous shots. It intersperses humor with moving messages, leaving me in tears for the entire movie. Rather than comment on which culture does “the right thing”, it shows how each person struggled with keeping the secret in their own way and how far people will go to protect their family. The Farewell depicts a very real Asian family dynamic that I recommend all people, regardless of race, go see for themselves.