Any child of the Chinese diaspora knows that when you visit home, your body is not your own. No matter how grown up you think you are, a trip to the motherland inevitably means being fed and fussed over like a baby.
The treatment starts as soon as I step into my grandmother’s Shanghai flat: “Your hair is so short! Must you dress like a boy? What’s wrong with your skin? You eat too much KFC.” By the time I sit down, she’s already dosing me with herbs to correct the excess heat in my body.
It’s uncomfortable and invasive – and somehow, it’s also love.
“That’s very much part of my experience when I go back to China, that my life is not my own,” writer and director Lulu Wang tells me. “The sense of responsibility and claustrophobia, the sense of being trapped, the lack of personal space – all of those things.”
Wang’s feature film The Farewell explores love, grief, and culture shock in one cross-border family. Billed as “based on an actual lie”, the story follows Billi, a Chinese-American woman who finds out that her beloved Nai Nai (paternal grandmother) is dying. As is common in China, the family wants to conceal the diagnosis from Nai Nai in the belief that the news will ruin her last days and accelerate her death. To say goodbye, the far-flung branches of the family return from the US and Japan to their hometown in northern China’s Changchun under the guise of a wedding. The lie doesn’t sit well with Billi – who is based on Wang herself – but over the course of the film, she also learns that there is much she doesn’t entirely understand about Chinese culture.
The lie exposes a fundamental tension between Eastern and Western conceptions of the self. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” Billi’s uncle tells her. “You want to tell Nai Nai the truth because you’re afraid to take responsibility for her.”
Wang’s film is a restrained, darkly comic drama that offers a moving portrait of a family while digging into some complex ethical questions. Told in English and Mandarin, with both spoken at varying levels of fluency, the dialogue is spare yet deeply resonant. I was startled at the accuracy of the details, from the gaudy sportswear favoured by many older Chinese women and the endless razed neighbourhoods to the fact that Nai Nai’s affectionate moniker for Billi is “stupid child”.
Nora Lum...gives a sensitive performance that captures the unique frustration of being rendered an inarticulate child when speaking your mother tongue
As Billi, Nora Lum (aka Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians fame) gives a sensitive performance that captures the unique frustration of being rendered an inarticulate child when speaking your mother tongue. This really hit home for me: I left China when I was four, and now I'm a professional writer in English but my Shanghainese and Mandarin are perpetually stuck at a primary school level. Having a difficult conversation in Chinese is like doing calligraphy with a toothbrush.
All the actors are persuasive and well-cast, and together they make for a family reunion that buzzes with guilt, alienation, resentment, nostalgia, duty, and tenderness.
“I’m not making a judgement on what is better: the collective or the individual,” Wang tells me. “In many ways, the thing that Billi misses and the thing that she recognises that she doesn’t have is the sense of being part of a greater whole. But at the same time, she very much feels the negative sides of the collective, where you don’t have your own voice.”
I grew up in Australia, and it’s hard for me to stomach the idea of lying to someone about their diagnosis. Self-determination is the foundation of all my moral and political views. I believe that well-intentioned paternalism often results in abuse.
In China too, attitudes to illness, death and disability are slowly changing. As a journalist at Shanghai’s Sixth Tone from 2016 to 2018, I saw a growing chorus of voices speaking up on bodily autonomy and consent, whether in relation to disability, trans rights, sex and relationships, or end-of-life care. Doctors, too, are challenging the norm of giving diagnoses to family members instead of the patient.
At the same time, a more collectivist approach isn’t wholly unattractive. Yes, this is a conception of life that sits in conflict with individual autonomy. It can diminish and deny your personhood. Yet it can also hold you up in a network of mutual care. It can offer you a place in the world, a clear sense of duty and lineage, an assurance that you make sense in the grand scheme of things.
In real life, Wang’s grandmother is still alive – six years after being told she wasn’t long for the world – and she is still in the dark about her diagnosis. The Farewell implicates the audience in its lie, because now we all know what Nai Nai doesn’t. Wang still has complicated feelings about the ethics of the situation, though she appreciates that making the film allowed her to spend much more time in Changchun than she had since moving to the US at age six, and enabled her grandmother to see her at work for the first time. Wang also enlisted her parents in helping her finesse the translation of the Chinese script.
“Ultimately did all of it – the lie, the movie – bring a greater amount of joy to the family? Yes, absolutely,” she says.
The Farewell is the most truthful portrayal of the diasporic Chinese experience that I’ve seen to date
Despite being built on a lie, The Farewell is the most truthful portrayal of the diasporic Chinese experience that I’ve seen to date. But Wang experienced plenty of pushback before she was able to make the film she wanted. Funders told her that the story was too Chinese for an American audience and too American for a Chinese audience, and even tried to introduce a white love interest for Billi.
Wang resisted, and ultimately found support after an episode of This American Life launched her story into the public eye. “If one channel isn’t working, try something else,” she advises struggling creators. That might mean making a short film or podcast or graphic novel first, instead of a feature.
“It’s really about holding onto what drew you to the story, the heart of it, and not letting go of that,” she says. “I would really encourage storytellers to use any kind of creative avenue to properly represent their vision, in order to stake a claim on the authenticity of the story.”
The Farewell is in cinemas from September 5.
Jinghua Qian is a freelance writer. Follow them on Twitter at @qianjinghua.