What ho! There is a gold rush in Hollywood, and that gold is diversity, with studios racing to mine the new field.
We’ve seen some successful productions built on good storytelling. In 2016, Moonlight pulled off an exploration of blackness, masculinity, homosexuality and vulnerability in a moving coming-of-age tale set in Florida. It even brought home Oscar gold.
But beware fool’s gold. There have also been awkward productions, like the latest Star Wars cash grabs, which left some critical progressive viewers — I’m not talking about the angry sexist fanboys — calling the tokenized shoehorning of people of colour a “Jedi mind trick.”
As a result of this rush to mine diverse talent and diverse stories — some roles come with “diverse only” labels, according to the Hollywood Reporter — and reflect gender, culture, age and sexual orientation not usually showcased by America’s entertainment machine, those of us hungering for representation have huge expectations.
Don’t tell us to watch an Asian movie if we want to see Asian people on screen! We want to see Asians in North American content. And anyway, viewers in China don’t seem to care for cross-cultural stories.
Now our expectations as Asian North Americans are probably unfair, treating any film — or book or TV show — like some Chosen One who will liberate us non-whites without all-American lives from mainstream invisibility. For people like me, growing up on Hollywood diets without seeing ourselves adds to the feeling that we don’t quite belong.
Last August, I found myself excited to watch a sugary teen romance, Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, simply because I heard that Yakult was in it.
Yakult is not the mononym of a famous East Asian actor; it’s a yogurty Japanese drink that many East Asian parents gave their kids because it’s probiotic.
If the appearance of Yakult, which isn’t even named in the film but easily recognized because of its distinctive little bottle, is enough to generate think pieces and boost the company’s stock, imagine what turning up the notch on Asian American representation could do.
Crazy Rich Asians treated us to that experience earlier that August, a lavish all-out, all-Asian American blockbuster.
It’s not surprising that the reviewers of movies telling Asian American stories treat the film like the birth of Christ, with films being classified as Before Crazy Rich Asians, or Anno Isanus Opulentos Orientales.
It performed well critically, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 91 per cent. But the intensive mass scrutiny by under-represented communities means that films or shows that claim to be “diverse” or feature “diverse” characters must also succeed in being an accurate reflection of the communities or experiences depicted.
In other words: Are they authentic?
The fiery Eddie Huang fought for authenticity when ABC decided to make a show based on his book Fresh Off the Boat, a memoir of his growing up in the U.S. as the child of Taiwanese immigrants.
But the final product, in his opinion, was whitewashed. In his essay in New York magazine, Huang, a chef, offered a few culinary metaphors for what his story had become.
“The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan... Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak... and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.”
I found myself gagging at the show’s chop suey of artificial actors and anecdotes because it was served so heavy handedly, as if before every scene a narrator was shouting, “Hey Asians, here’s your representation!”
The show was nonetheless popular with critics and audiences, who were indeed hungry enough to settle for orange chicken.
Perhaps this is why writer and director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is the diversity darling of the year, because she was able to tell a story on her own terms. The film nabbed the audience award at Sundance London and surpassed the pent-up climax that is Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, released after 11 years and 21 films of franchise-building foreplay, to pull in the highest revenue per theatre so far in 2019.
(Alert — spoilers below.)
The Farewell couldn’t be more different from Crazy Rich Asians. Yes, it may feature another Chinese American New Yorker, but Billi (played by Awkwafina, who was in Crazy Rich Asians as the loudmouthed comic relief) is not on her way to marry the heir of a family fortune in exotic Singapore. She’s a broke, unemployed aspiring writer in her early 30s travelling to a visually cookie-cutter modern Chinese city (revealed late in the film as Changchun) to visit her terminally ill grandmother.
The twist here is a cultural one: The family is keeping grandma (played by Zhao Shuzhen) in the dark about her cancer diagnosis.
China-born, U.S.-raised Billi is confused and upset.
“Chinese people have a saying,” her mother explains. “When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.”
It may sound strange, even illegal, in the West to keep a cancer diagnosis under wraps, but it’s not uncommon among stigma-wary Chinese or other cultural groups including Hasidic Jews and Pakistani Muslims.
A Chinese cancer patient, in a Washington Post article on cancer and culture, explains the hush-hush as “stoic acceptance, saving face, keeping quiet.”
How then might Billi’s whole family say their last goodbyes in China without arousing suspicion?
Why, by staging a wedding of course! It’s not fake, just hurried — Billi’s cousin was planning to get married anyway.
Billi, though, is forbidden by her mother to go, who says she’s too emotional and will ruin the plan. But Billi forks out the dough for her own plane ride, even if she’s not a crazy rich Asian. Billi is close to her grandmother, raised by her for a time, and the two keep in touch with phone calls.
Upon arrival in Changchun, Billi becomes a willing captive of the family, obeying enemy terms like being made to stay at a hotel and not the family apartment and agreeing not to do anything that would arouse her grandmother’s suspicion about the ruse. In one scene, she looks on as the family forges hospital test results. “Benign shadows” sounds like a realistic but tame enough diagnosis to share with her, they agree.
These are the conditions Billi must endure if she wants to be present for her grandmother’s farewell, even if she’s forbidden to say goodbye.
The melancholic film captures what it must be like to tag along on this kind of clan reunion, avoiding in-your-face moments of tragedy or comedy but delivering realistic helpings of both. We meet the family, and learn that Billi isn’t the only one carrying an emotional burden. The Chinese mother of a young son frets over the prospect of giving him an American education, and adult sons feel guilty about emigrating from China and leaving their aging mother behind.
We see glimpses of Billi looking both lost and longing as she sees the home she left at a young age, like many young children of immigrants in diasporic destinations like Vancouver who visit places of origin to be pinched, interrogated and gawked at by relatives expressing a rough sense of curiosity.
Glimpses of Changchun, with its levelled neighbourhoods and stark new urban environments, also reveal a place and people looking for something. Nosing around her hotel after dark, Billi sees, through the sliver of an open doorway, a crowd of call girls entertaining a businessman.
Awkwafina, whose public and cinematic persona has been the quirky Brooklyn badass, has won praise for her performance as Billi. But it’s the usual fawning you get when someone plays against type. She does a good job, but this is kind of the point of acting.
I found the real star of the film to be Diana Lin, who plays Billi’s mother Jian. She’s a skinny mom, but a mighty force of parental rationality that puts all members of the family in place. We see her chide Billi, but also defend her from a snobby sister-in-law. Even in the background, we see her maintaining order, from meal prep to helping her husband remove his trousers after an evening of drinking.
It’s hard to deny the authenticity of the film, because much of it is reconstructed from the experience of writer-director Lulu Wang.
Billi is Wang, who told her story on an episode of This American Life. Within 48 hours she was offered the chance to make a film out of it. She took a stand against producers’ suggestions to give Billi a love interest, make that love interest white and have her marry him — no Matt Damon (cough cough The Great Wall) or Christian Bale (cough cough The Flowers of War) inserted here.
The result is very close to Wang’s reality. The neighbourhood Billi’s grandmother lives in in the film is the Wang’s grandmother’s neighbourhood, Her grandfather’s grave is Wang’s grandfather’s grave. And Billi’s great-aunt is played by Wang’s actual great-aunt. Wang was also able to set most of the film’s dialogue in Mandarin.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the film, with acclaim from the 1.4-million strong Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, the internet’s home for diasporic discussion, and a perfect 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics applauding the film’s universality as a story of family.
It may be an important film for representation, but I found it imperfect, like a diary entry that’s too shy to dig deeper, too real to plumb greater dramatic depths. Resolutions are too quiet at times and too loud at others.
At one point in the film, Billi’s uncle lectures both her and the North American members of the audience. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.”
It’s an irritating statement that furthers the divide for Asian kids raised in the West, as if life has to be an either-or: you’re either a family-honouring Asian or freedom-loving cowboy.
It also makes the film’s displays of filial Chinese culture feel less documentary and more like Wang’s effort to highlight difference.
There are high hopes for The Farewell in China, but it is ultimately a Western film. I wonder if some criticisms by one reviewer in China about Crazy Rich Asians, though intense, might cross over: “So Chinese people in the eyes of Europeans and Americans are just about clans, extravagant snobbery, a blind sense of superiority, and stubbornly clinging to outdated rules and ideas?”
Every time I watch one of these films with “diversity” stamped on the tin I wait for the moment it offers its take on cultural plurality.
The Farewell doesn’t resolve Billi’s sense of belonging in the world. At first I wondered if I was unreasonable to ask for this, but Wang gives us scene after scene of Billi looking lost throughout the film — in Changchun, looking at the city through a car window; in New York, being the only Asian-looking person at a birthday party or strolling on the street.
You can’t help but think “How does she fit in here?” And if you’re a diaspora kid, you might be wondering, “How do I fit in? Where do I fit in?”
It is however undeniably refreshing that a quiet story like The Farewell can triumph in the diversity gold rush, as juggernauts like Netflix and Marvel mine the appetite for obvious crowd pleasers, bringing non-white actors into already successful Hollywood formulas — superhero movies will now come in a new flavour: Asian!
Even with its faults, a unique story like “Grandma has cancer and we can’t tell her because she’ll die sooner” is a cause for celebration, and I look forward to more unexpected narratives that aren’t Star Wars telling me that, yes, there can also be Asians in space.
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