Firstly let me get this out of the way: I’m an Asian person working in film and I haven’t seen Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it and it’s not because I have some problem with it but there’s just too much stuff out there in the world and no human can see every movie, right? The fact of not having watched Crazy Rich Asians has nothing to do with the rest of this piece, but it feels like some dirty illness I need to disclose. I don’t have an opinion about Crazy Rich Asians but does that even matter? Maybe it’ll seem like my commentary on contemporary Asian cinema is uninformed or out of touch or something. Well I don’t care, I’m here to talk about The Farewell!
When I watched The Farewell, I cried like a baby because I was in a big mood to cry that day. There was nothing wrong with my day; it was probably just my usual hormone cycle doing its thing. I enjoy crying in the cinema because there’s something extra cathartic about crying in the dark with a room full of strangers. The film was obviously going to be sad: it’s about a young woman who knows her grandmother is dying. Her grandmother doesn’t know it and she’s not allowed to tell her so she’s forced to lie in all sorts of ways. She has to find a way to say goodbye without actually saying it. That’s why it’s called ‘The Farewell’. I was in a big mood to cry and the movie delivered; I cried so much and it felt great.
Despite not having seen Crazy Rich Asians and what that might say about me, I actually do care a lot about diversity and representation in contemporary movie-making. It was cool to see so many different flavours of Asian in one film: Japanese-Chinese, Chinese-American, Chinese-Chinese, etc. I’m the Korean-Australian flavour of Asian and I wasn’t represented in the film but who cares? It was a great film and not everything has to be about me. The diversity conversation is super important but sometimes it can get so loud it drowns out the voice of a film. I feel like that’s what happened to Crazy Rich Asians and I would hate for that to happen to a beautifully quiet film like The Farewell.
The diversity conversation can be exhausting after a while, even if it’s super important. Right now I don’t want to talk about why The Farewell is important for diversity, I just want to talk about why I liked it. I liked The Farewell because I really related to that general thing in Asian culture where it’s more acceptable to lie than to say what you’re actually thinking and feeling. Displays of negative emotions are frowned upon so you laugh when you want to cry and if you really have to cry, you go to a different room and do it quietly. Maybe it’s the Australian in me that likes to cry in a room full of strangers because I’m a melodramatic Westerner who exhibits my feelings in front of other people, but it’s the Asian in me that likes crying in the cinema because it’s dark and I can’t actually be seen.
The most devastating thing about this Asian tendency to not show emotion is the inability to share your painful feelings with others, even those who you have the most intimate relationships with. The film shows this quiet restraint of emotion so perfectly, it really has no big melodramatic moments and that’s what makes the film doubly heartbreaking. I watched an interview with Awkwafina where she recounts how she watched the film at home with her actual grandmother. Her grandma walked out in the last ten minutes because “it was 5pm and she had to make dinner”. I imagine the real reason was because in the last ten minutes of the film there is an emotional climax which compelled her to leave the room lest she cry in front of her granddaughter.
For such a sad film, The Farewell is actually also very funny. Funny moments are wedged abruptly between the sad and so I found myself laughing and crying a lot at the same time. It reminded me of something I used to be told as a kid if I was having a crying tantrum. There’s a joke that Korean parents tell their child that if you cry and laugh at the same time, you’ll grow pubic hair. That makes the crying child laugh and then you tease the child more because now they’re doomed to grow heaps of pubes. Ideally that’d make them laugh more and then they’d be absolutely covered in pubes. For a while as a child, I truly believed this was how pubic hair came to be. Anyway, I liked the part in the film where the grandmother says “I always loved to touch your little round bottom” to Awkwafina because it reminded me of how it’s totally okay and not inappropriate to touch the little round bottoms of children in some Asian cultures. I liked that they put that in there regardless of the fact that Western audiences might find it a bit weird. Asian people can be weird and it’s fine and totally normal! Just like pubic hair!
Crazy Rich Asians has nothing to do with any of this but let me come back to it for a moment. I recently scrolled past a headline on an article shared on Facebook about an Asian writer pulling out of writing the Crazy Rich Asians sequel because their white co-writer was getting paid an infuriatingly higher rate. I didn’t read the article, not cause I wasn’t interested: there are just too many articles in the world and no human can read every single one, right? It can all be so loud and exhausting. Sometimes I just want to enjoy good quiet films but it can be hard to hear when everyone’s shouting angrily over each other. Isn’t it important to amplify quiet voices? Isn’t that the whole point of the diversity conversation? It’s been nice to see The Farewell doing its thing and holding its space in between all that noise.
The Farewell is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Hyun Lee is a filmmaker based in Sydney. She is the writer and director of the short film Asian Girls which was a recipient of the ScreenNSW Emerging Filmmakers’ Fund. The film premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival in 2018.