Saying hello to true racial equity — onscreen and off

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell’ and the duality of mainstream success

5 minute read
Who’s really got a seat at the table? Awkwafina and the cast of ‘The Farewell.’ (Image courtesy of A24.)
Who’s really got a seat at the table? Awkwafina and the cast of ‘The Farewell.’ (Image courtesy of A24.)

Earlier this year during the Philadelphia Film Society’s (PFS) Spring Showcase, I saw writer/director Lulu Wang’s slow-burning family dramedy The Farewell. Starring Crazy Rich Asians breakout talent Awkwafina and distributed by A24, this film conveyed an incredibly nuanced story about intergenerational relationships and the varied perspectives of the overseas Chinese diaspora through their relationship with death.

Awkwafina stars as Billi, an outspoken Chinese-born, American-raised daughter of two Chinese immigrants. She returns to China against her family’s wishes to say her last goodbyes to a grandmother who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The catch: Her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and believes that her family is in town for a wedding between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend. The film’s main conflict arises when Billi’s extended family overseas wishes to spare their ailing matriarch from the knowledge of her impending mortality, while Billi, as a Chinese American, grapples with her own understanding of medical ethics and the responsibility of bearing such a burden on another’s behalf.

A deeply resonant film

In diasporic families with generational divides that include language barriers, the silence between words speaks volumes—something that Wang expertly delivers in her carefully chosen dialogue. Her minimal use of music helps to punctuate key moments with a smart use of sound. Similarly, the film’s measured pacing and static camera shots reflect the somber tone of Billi’s internal struggle: whether or not to tell her grandmother about her diagnosis. I have seen many films about loss, but struggle to think of another that so aptly captures the grieving process while a loved one still lives.

As a Japanese American with relatives on both sides of the Pacific, the film resonated deeply with me in the ways it echoed my own challenges in navigating the cultural differences between my Japanese and American family members. Even people of the same generation living in different countries have very different ways of moving through the world around them, which Wang demonstrates through the multitude of Chinese diasporic identities that are included in the film.

Alone in the audience?

The film thoroughly impressed me, and as the credits rolled, I looked around the packed theater of about 300 attendees at the Philadelphia Film Center to find another Asian American, hoping to discuss the story elements that resonated with me the most. That was when I realized that I could not identify any other people in the audience who were visibly of Asian descent.


In one sense it was terrific that PFS and its audience were able to embrace this film, which does have universally relatable themes surrounding end-of-life care and family dynamics. On the other hand, it seemed strange that a film so deeply personal to this Chinese American filmmaker (who based the movie on real events in her own life) would play in a packed Philadelphia theater in which the people who could relate to it the most were notably absent.

Who benefits?

Fortunately, the folks at A24 have done a much better job reaching out to communities in advance of the film’s theatrical release (including a free advance screening that was heavily populated by Asian American audience members at Ritz East last week), but here’s my underlying question: who really benefits from a film like this entering the mainstream market?

Obviously, the filmmakers themselves, who were predominantly Asian American, did benefit greatly from the reported $6-$7 million price tag paid by distributor A24. I am also grateful that this film is being released by a major distributor, which reaffirms the appeal of nonwhite-led films in a mainstream market.

However, if the PFS screening is any indication of a larger trend, I worry that dominant cultural institutions whose members are mostly white may continue acting as gatekeepers who frame conversations around (and reap the profits from) POC-driven films. If the communities who generate stories like The Farewell continue to be excluded from predominantly white institutions, it seems unlikely that films like these will inspire critical dialogue related to racial equity in film and television that might otherwise be possible in a more community-oriented space.

We’ve been here before

I may be somewhat pessimistic as a media scholar who has found trends similar to these in the past, when the Asian American community has come close to breaking into the mainstream. Universal produced the first all-Asian-cast studio film in its1961 adaptation of the musical Flower Drum Song, yet the breakout stars could not advance their careers past stereotype-laden roles in subsequent productions. Joy Luck Club presented a similar opportunity in 1993, and although most of the actors from that film have continued with steady work throughout the past 25 years, none of them are household names. Why then should we expect the aftermath of the Crazy Rich Asians craze to be any different?

How can excellent films like ‘The Farewell’ move us forward in meaningful ways? (Photo by Nick West, courtesy of A24.)
How can excellent films like ‘The Farewell’ move us forward in meaningful ways? (Photo by Nick West, courtesy of A24.)

There are certainly many differences between these past instances and the media landscape of today, but at a moment when the US president is openly telling elected members of Congress who are women of color to “go back where they came from,” how much of this is lip service and how much will lead to actual lasting change?

More than one film can answer

Will this film and others like it prevent the next Dr. Dao from being beaten and dragged off an airplane? Will it stop kids from being bullied at school for the shape of their eyes or the food in their packed lunch? Will Chinese researchers and scientists stop losing their jobs after being profiled as potential spies? Is it even the role of cinema to impact society in these ways?

These are clearly larger questions than any one film can answer, but Asian American community members continue to be systemically marginalized, and unless we are able to make our voices heard within dominant cultural institutions, I worry the long-term implications of celebrating this mainstreaming without a healthy dose of skepticism may distract us from actually having these necessary dialogues.

Despite these concerns, The Farewell represents exciting new possibilities for the transnational Asian American cinematic narrative that incorporates a multitude of lived experiences across the diaspora. I encourage AAPI community members and all people who value cinematic diversity to support this film, but I hope audiences also understand that seeing releases like these in a mainstream space are a means, not an end.

What, When, Where

The Farewell is scheduled for release at Philly’s Ritz East on July 25, 2019, and runs through August 1, 2019. Showtimes available here.

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