What makes a movie American? The question isn’t what makes a movie a Hollywood movie, but what makes it ours? One wonders as one watches “The Farewell,” a film new to the local 13-plex.
The movie’s writer and director, Lulu Wang, moved to the U.S. at age 4, like the lead character, Billi, in “The Farewell.” Billi is also a writer, and she has been turned down for a fellowship by the time she hears from her parents that her beloved paternal grandmother is dying of lung cancer.
Wang admits, by the way, that the grandmother is based on her own. That grandmother, by the way, had cancer.
One of the oldest observations about American lit is that the first novel is always a coming-of-age story, something likely to be based on the writer’s actual experiences.
But then not much of “The Farewell” is set in the U.S. Putting aside her parents’ fear that she will be unable to hide her unhappiness about her granny’s impending death, Billi flies to China. Her aunt and uncle from Japan and their son are coming, as are Billi’s folks.
To excuse this reunion, Granny’s younger sister has told the old lady that the grandson is getting married. He brings along his fiancee. Note that they can’t act like happy soon-to-be newlyweds.
Why don’t the family members tell their oldest living progenitor that she has only three months to live? Apparently this is the Chinese custom. The movie spends a little time telling ways in which American living is different from Chinese tradition.
But even the China-resident family members seem pretty Westernized. One young cousin is going to be sent to the U.S. to attend college. And most of them accept the idea that members of their family may not speak Chinese.
The film does show how Chinese life is different. Grandma has a maid, lives with a longtime “lover,” and, despite her apparent affluence, lives in an outwardly anonymous high-rise apartment building of the sort that we immediately assume is a government construction.
Billi (played by Awkwafina, aka Nora Lum) thinks everything she remembers about China is changing. The old house is gone. Grandmother is no longer in the armed services. Soon Granny will be dead, and then what will be left of her attachment to the old country?
Still, there are some things the same. The women all work all the time in the kitchen. Granny does slow motion martial arts moves and shouts “Ha” as she punches — this is her exercise discipline. All the Chinese in the film drink fairly heavily, though there isn’t much gambling.
In the end the movie has been so wonderfully even-handed that it seems not to have accomplished anything much. But there is that business about the birds.
In New York, something that looks like a frazzled wren appears in Billi’s sealed apartment. Same thing happens in her Changchun hotel room (where the elevator doesn’t work and middle-aged men are entertained by bored-looking hookers).
Forget the idea that the hookers might be considered “birds.” In a late scene a flock of birds emerges all at once from a tree. There’s the big closing release, one thinks.
But no. In a postscript, the film tells us something about what happens after the family reunion, something that undercuts almost all the sentimental emphasis on the genuine “pre-grief” the family has felt.
Maybe “The Farewell” accomplishes all that a Chinese native would expect from a movie. It doesn’t seem to me to get much done. To the extent that it suggests a problem — that Billi is losing her affiliation with the land of her birth, say — it neither resolves the problem nor helps the reader to gain a complete understanding of it.
Even English and Canadian films are sometimes like this — not exactly in our national idiom. We can like those movies, and admire them. But they can’t feel like ours.