I have been on a movie binge for the past few months; it pretty much started when Ontario started its yo-yo lockdown phase. I’ve always had a strong love for great cinema, but with all the extra time that I had on my hands, I started checking movies off my “to watch” list at a rapid pace. I left no genre, no director, and no spoken language untouched.
I discovered the movie, “The Farewell”, one evening, as I was browsing for something to watch on Amazon Prime. Strangely enough, I had never heard of it before, despite the fact that Awkwafina had won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress the year before. I didn’t know what to expect but seeing that I was rapidly exhausting my options for movies, I figured that I’d give it a shot.
I didn’t expect most of the movie to be in Mandarin. I didn’t even expect Awkwafina to speak Mandarin (however accented it was). I especially didn’t expect to hear the Northern China dialect spoken by all the characters in the film – the same dialect that I speak with my parents at home, and the same dialect that I have grown up hearing for the past 22 years.
I was wholly unprepared for the emotional toll the movie would take on me. Without giving away too much of the premise of the film (because I know how much some people hate spoilers), the movie’s plot essentially revolves around one big lie: the matriarch of the family is diagnosed with cancer, and the family works together to avoid telling her. This type of lie is something you’d never see in the West (because it’s illegal), but in China, it’s the norm. You lie so that they don’t panic and allow fear to consume their days. You lie to protect the sanity of your loved one.
Beyond that, though, what I found so beautiful about the movie was that it explored the relationship that Awkwafina’s character – Billie – has with her sick grandma, and with the rest of her Chinese family. You see how out-of-place she feels in China with her broken Mandarin, but you also see how she never quite lost touch with her roots in China even after years of living in the US. Family get-togethers seem to feel comforting, and foreign at the same time. The profound love that she feels for her grandma, in particular, is endearing and despite the fact that the two of them have been living on two sides of the world for years (Billie in NYC, her grandma in China), the familial bond between them is strong.
In one of the last shots of the film, Billie and her family are saying goodbye to the family, as they prepare to head back home to New York. There’s a great shot of Billie’s grandmother waving goodbye, and you see her figure get smaller and smaller as the taxi car drives away. She waves goodbye to Billie, still not knowing that her body is being ravaged with cancer. That one frame turned me into an emotional mess – I kept thinking, “Will she ever see her grandmother alive again?”.
I never would’ve guessed that the entirety of this Chinese-language film (although directed through more of an American lens) would have had the impact that it did on me. The whole film, in many ways, was something I could personally relate to, which is why I felt so connected to it. I saw parts of myself in the way that Billie interacted with her extended family – the bits of awkwardness, the answering of questions like, “How is life in the West?”, the back-and-forth conversation and jokes in Chinese that I am so used to hearing.
Every character on screen felt like my relative when they opened their mouths to speak. Hearing the dialect – the familiar slang, the accent, the subtle tones that make the Northern China dialect so different from some of the other ones – made it feel like it was my own mother, or my own grandmother speaking to me from the screen.
This is the second Chinese language film I’ve watched in its entirety. Two years ago, I went to go see “The Wandering Earth”, a Mandarin sci-fi movie, in theatres with my parents. While the details of the plot are blurry, I distinctly remember the tears that streamed down my face in one of the final scenes of the movie. It was a simple scene, one involving a father saying goodbye to his son. It’s the type of emotional scene that has been reproduced in just about every sci-fi space movie. But this one in particular hit me in a way that I couldn’t quite explain, sitting there in the theatre. There was just something about the way that the father spoke to his son that allowed me to imagine it was my own father speaking to me in his mother tongue.
I think these “Asian-American” films (for lack of a better label) are more emotional for first-generation kids than they are for even our parents. We grow up, here in the Western World, with two identities: the Chinese one and the Canadian one. The Canadian one – our prominent identity – is one we’ve nurtured since the day we were born. It gets strengthened when we’re at the mall with our friends, when we’re at school on the playground, and when we’re consuming books, movies, and pop culture. The Chinese identity we have, however, if not protected and nurtured, is gradually shed by many first-generation kids. We start to forget the language – first, how to read the characters on paper, and then later, how to say anything beyond the basic phrases and greetings. Chinese New Year becomes just another day, as we stop partaking in the rituals. Visits to your family’s hometown back in China become more and more scarce, and each visit feels more and more foreign.
From conversations that I have had with my Chinese-Canadian first-gen friends, I know that this – the unfortunate loss of half of our identity – is something so many of us can relate to, despite Canada’s “melting pot” environment. And so, I think that this is the reason movies like “The Farewell” stir something in us. Hearing the language and seeing our people on-screen awakens the Chinese identity in us, and reminds us of our roots. It reminds us of home, of a home that we feel distant from, yet close to all at the same time. A home that will still always feel like home, no matter how long you have been away from it.
Luckily, I find that as I get older, I’ve been embracing my “Chinese identity” more. My mom told me just the other day that when I was younger, I used to say that I wanted to be white. “You used to say that you weren’t Chinese,” she teases me. And while she finds it to be funny, I feel incredibly embarrassed at the thought of that. I hope that going forward, I continue to find ways to nurture the identity that can be easy to leave behind as a young adult.