The Farewell: A Review

When I saw the trailer for The Farewell, I knew it had the potential to be the film people were hoping Crazy Rich Asians would have been, and fill that cultural void that they were hoping it would fill. Having now watched it, I can confirm it has met my expectations.

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is of the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American young woman who learns that her grandmother has lung cancer and only three months to live. Shocked that her immigrant parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and extended family plan on keeping the news from the old lady, Billi flies to China despite their admonitions to join them and see her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). As cultural clashes intensify and family tensions rise, Billi struggles to keep up with the preparations and celebrations around her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) fake wedding, the pretext the family have devised for the gathering.

In many ways, The Farewell has got the Culture so right, providing a window into the lives of an ordinary middle-class Chinese family of sea turtles, who live in an average city, in a typical apartment block, in a typical neighbourhood. All the major scenes and dramatic climaxes are aptly set during meal times. To the food-obsessed Chinese, eating together is an essential ritual that fulfills a whole range of social functions. Food also is a major way in which people show affection. Everyone who can, emigrates. The film cinches this irony of this Chinese phenomenon by demonstrating the inability of Billi and Hao Hao, who moved to different countries as young children, to communicate with each other.

From the semi-seedy hotels with its prying, nosy caretakers, the popular massage treatments with a dash of TCM, to Nai Nai’s string of live-in carers from the countryside; from the peculiar custom of pre-nuptial wedding photography, to the details of interior décor of the family home, such as the communist-era couples photo hanging on the wall of Nai Nai’s bedroom, the film is telling it as it is. My mother’s hometown is Changchun, which I have often visited, and seeing Hao Hao’s wedding was like seeing my own cousin’s nuptial festivities again on the big screen.

Although the modern China presented in the film feels very limited, its entire focus being based around a hospital, a couple of urban backstreets, and a soulless construction site, I do grant that the story is told mainly from Billi’s viewpoint. Not everyone in the country is just after making money, as the conversation during the family meal in the restaurant seems to suggest, and most old Chinese cities have an old town that’s steeped in history, existing alongside the highway jungle of concrete and glass, where life is slower, greener and more picturesque. I found the (Western) classical, modern classical soundtrack rather over-abundant and at times jarring against the East-meets-West themes explored in a Chinese environment, though again this can be attributed to the point of view.

Another quibble I have with the film is the apparent confusion between different locations within China. We see Billi arriving at Shanghai airport on the East coast, but the wedding takes place thousands of miles away in Changchun, capital of the country’s northeastern-most province. Although migration is a common phenomenon over there, an explanation would have been good as to how the family ended up in Shanghai. Regional culture is often diverse, especially in a vast and heterogeneous country like China, where you can feel very displacement by being in another province. Had the wedding taken place in the south, it would have had a very different feel.

In a point-of-view film that aims to show rather than narrate, the script becomes central. The script couldn’t have been easy for an American-Chinese author to write, being partially in English and Chinese, yet it has been localized well in both languages. The film shines with some very memorable dialogue tableaus throughout, such as Billi’s unexpected arrival at the family home, and old comrades and old flames reuniting at a grandchild’s wedding. My favourite scene is the picnic at the graveside of Billi’s late grandpa. Albeit a visit to the dead, it’s a time when the family seems most at ease, united and happiest in the entire film. The stylized cinematography is certainly an appeal of this film. Bustling contemporary Chinese streets, packed with hawkers, LEDs and multicolour store fronts, provide a gorgeous palette for the deep bokeh shots that frame the story’s more contemplative scenes. The long shot of solidarity at the end featuring the whole family standing together, looking somber in a harsh palette, speaks volumes within the context of the story.

Expectedly, The Farewell explores themes of generational and aspirational conflicts arising out of the East-West culture clash, which no doubt resonates with diaspora Chinese of different varieties around the world. Despite being a very Chinese film, The Farewell is highly relatable for everyone. As with big family gatherings anywhere, antagonisms tend to emerge and the past comes to the surface. We are also seeing three generations of strong women represented here, Lu Jian, Billi’s stern and stoic mother, Nai Nai, a hugely positive portrayal of the formidable Chinese granny who, despite being the invalid everyone is trying to support, holds the family together and proves a wise and caring intergenerational mentor; and of course Billi, the protagonist who is rather downtrodden at the beginning of the film but whom we see grow in understanding, strengthen and transform, while other characters start to unravel.

With a little more humour and irony, I think the Farewell could have been an even better film. However, I sense that it’s a highly personal experience for its creator and has successfully explored some difficult themes. The Farewell will become a classic of diaspora cinema, and in the years to come, it shall be one of the films I’ll recommend when people ask me what it means being Chinese is, or what Chinese families are like.


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Raising Inner Demons: Chinese Black Metal in Europe

I explore the Zuriaake’s live presence and the representation of Chinese indie music in the West.


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Some Thoughts on The Wandering Earth

Hope you’ve all had a chance to watch The Wandering Earth by now. (If you haven’t, its on Netflix, and iQiyi). I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Did Wandering Earth live up to all the hype? I think it did! It was an excellent hard sci-fi movie. With very high production values, including the CG, a gripping but logically grounded plot line, which, whilst comparable to some of Hollywood’s disasterporn sci-fi, never loses its very Chinese heart.


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CCTV Gala 2019

The Chun Jie Wan Hui, CCTV’s New Year Gala, (often just referred to as as Chun Wan), is almost as old as I am, though there had been televised celebrations of a more artistic nature broadcast on and off since the 1950s. On every New Year’s Eve, after the huge meal, my family would inevitably gather round, and watch through four or five hours of this state produced extravaganza, keeping us awake til the small hours of New Year’s Day with the pomp and majesty of costumes, lighting and stage sets; and the relentless exuberance of acts trying to out ham each other.


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Aquaman in China

So “Aquaman⁠”, directed by James Wan, Australian director of Malaysian Chinese descent, with Chinese actor Ludi Lin (Power Rangers) as Murk, has been doing well in box offices in China. Some might be puzzled as to why the Chinese would be drawn to a story that seems so immersed in the world of Greek mythology. Although very much unique in their own right, the world’s mythologies do share certain commonalities, and there are many elements in this film that would make it popular with a Chinese audience.


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Ghost Girl, Gwei Mui 鬼妹

There are many plays about being Chinese in Britain. Yet there was something about “Ghost Girl, Gwei Mui 鬼妹” that struck a chord with me, once a Cantonese girl transplanted from Guangzhou to London half way through her upbringing. Perhaps it was the title, the idea of being a living ghost – the invisible minority, or the daring reverse use of Gwei Mui, the Cantonese insult for foreigners, that prompted me to accept the offer to review this play.


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Chinese Arts in the UK 2019

Chinese New Year is becoming one of few times of the year when the world takes an interest in Chinese culture. Whilst I have always considered this a good starting point, there is so much more to China beyond Spring Festival. Like all live cultures, Chinese culture is developing organically every second, having sprouted thick branches across different regions within China, and new branches in different communities around the world. Over the last decade or so, China is increasingly featuring in not just current affairs, but in the arts around the UK. Media that present an overview of these events from different parts of the country, through the year, is much harder to come by. So this year, I have curated my own selection, not only for China-enthusiasts, but for anyone who is interested, curious, or just fancies a little different. I hope you will find it useful.


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Forgotten

The largely forgotten history of the Chinese Labour Corps, the 140,000 Chinese men who travelled from the other side of the world to the battlefields of Europe, to carry out supplies and repair work, in aid of the Allies during the First World War, has recently resurfaced in the media and public attention. Few would be better suited as a scriptwriter to a play dedicated to the CLC than Daniel York Loh (“Fu Manchu Complex”, “The Good Immigrant”), who has, among many things, become a leading figure in Britain in raising awareness of and fighting against entrenched racism and discrimination against East Asians.


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Jin Yong: An Orbituary

Jin Yong, one of the greatest Chinese writers of the twentieth century, passed away earlier this week on Tuesday the 30th of October. Aged 94, he died of organ failure after battling  long-term illness, at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital.


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Next Gen

I don’t just love China and culture. I like robots and movies too, so I’ll always take the opportunity to look at any area where these loves collide.

“Next Gen” is an animated film currently available on Netflix, set in a futuristic society in which advanced robots look after every stage of human existence, from home appliances, to drones, doors, even education. Justin Pin, the man-bunned CEO of IQ Robotics is adored like a superstar, and his Q-Bots are the must-have personal assistants. Angry, disillusioned high school student Mai Su (Charleyne Yi), bullied at school and trying to cope with her father’s abandonment, made worse by her robot-obsessed mother Molly (Constance Wu), ends up dragged along to a product launch for the latest bot. Getting lost in the labs, she accidentally activates a prototype robot, codenamed “77”, who becomes attached to her, and escapes the lab to find her. The two begin an unlikely friendship, whilst the robot’s original creator finds more sinister things afoot than a missing robot.


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