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'The Farewell' Deserves to Be Seen as an American Drama

Lulu Wang's film is nominated in the Foreign Language category at this year's Golden Globes. That choice undermines the diversity of the American audience.

by Bettina Makalintal
Dec 9 2019, 6:57pm

Photo via IMDB

With a formidable score of 99 on Rotten Tomatoes, Lulu Wang's The Farewell remains one of the most well-received movies of 2019. Hailed as heartwarming and universal, the film follows a woman named Billi as she travels from the United States to China following her grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis. Still, as made clear this morning, the film isn't in the running for the main best picture category of this year's Golden Globes. Instead, Wang's directorial debut is under consideration for Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language, a choice that undermines the diversity of the American audience.

The Farewell will be up against Spain's Pain & Glory, South Korea's Parasite, and France's Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Les Misérables, a categorization that comes down to the movie's use of language. Per The Hollywood Reporter, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which organizes the Golden Globes, regulates that films are considered in the foreign language category if they include "more than 50 percent non-English dialogue."

Beyond the quantifiable distinction of language usage, the quiet undercurrent is that these categories establish what's seen as American and what isn't. It's implied that the "best drama" is more accessible to an American audience than the "best foreign film," which is why, in October, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho called the Oscars actually "very local," and it's why, in early November, Nigeria's Oscar entry Lionheart was disqualified from the international film category on the grounds of using too much English.

When it comes to awards, language is treated as an indicator of a movie's cultural leanings, and with The Farewell in the Golden Globes' foreign language category, it's clear that Hollywood still isn't sure how to grapple with American multiculturalism. Given that Chinese is the third most spoken language in the United States, with 2.9 million speakers as of 2011, the idea that The Farewell is a foreign language movie more than it is a mainstream drama carries the implication that it's not quite as American as, say, The Irishman.

But unlike the other movies in its foreign language category, The Farewell is American, produced by American production companies and released first in the United States. Based on the real-life experiences of writer and director Lulu Wang, who moved from China to the United States at the age of six, The Farewell is pointedly Chinese American. It situates itself in and focuses on the in-between space of the "1.5 generation," people who immigrated before their early teens and for whom there can be the unshakeable feeling of being not entirely American nor entirely enmeshed in cultures of origin either.

At its heart, The Farewell highlights the tensions inherent in Billi's Chinese American background. Billi, played by Awkwafina in a Golden Globe-nominated role, is culturally Chinese, but her life and self have been established primarily in the United States. She doesn't quite relate to the norms and practices in China, and her American upbringing clashes with the values of her elder relatives, who follow the Chinese mindset that Billi's sick grandmother need not be informed of her health condition in order to spare her from added suffering. She's an immigrant, but also American, but also an outsider in a country that was once her homeland.

The positioning between American culture and Chinese culture—and studios' hardline distinction between the two—repeatedly posed issues for Wang as she tried to sell the film. American producers saw it as a subtitled Mandarin-language feature, while Chinese producers found Billi's perspective "too westernized." Initially, both sides wanted to change things to make the film better fit either a Chinese or an American audience.

To those responses, Wang is adamant that The Farewell is American; instead of changing the film's language or location to fit a dominant narrative of white, English-focused Americanness, however, Wang is pushing Hollywood and viewers to broaden their conception of what it means to be American. "To me, it’s a very American story because I’m American," she told Vanity Fair in July.

"...It is an AMERICAN film, challenging what it means to be American and who gets to claim Americanness. That’s why I’m writing to you now, asking you to go see the film in theaters, because we need American movies like this to keep getting made," she wrote in an A24 blog post in August. "No, I will not change the ethnicity of the cast. No, I will not have them speak English. No, I will not have these characters talk or behave in any way that doesn’t feel authentic to the people I know."

Throughout their long history in the United States, Chinese immigrants have built the country as we know it, and Chinese culture continues to be endlessly borrowed, enjoyed, and riffed on, and despite the long reach of 1882's Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants now make up the third-largest foreign-born group in the United States today. To imply that the Chinese American culture of The Farewell is any less American than the Italian American mobsters of The Irishman by virtue of its spoken language is a disservice to the breadth of cultures across the United States, the immigrants, and the people who make up the in-between.

For the Golden Globes to consider The Farewell a foreign language film over a drama relies on an idea of a narrow and specific audience, one that feels increasingly stuck in a previous era. The United States is becoming more varied and multicultural, and it's time for Hollywood to do the same.

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Tagged:
golden globes
Awkwafina
asian american experience
2019 golden globes
Lulu Wang
The Farewell