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Acclaimed Writer-Director Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell' Expounds on "In-Betweeness"

July 10, 2019
3 min read time

There's already Oscar® buzz for writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, starring Awkwafina. If they do get nominations, the pair will make history. We are now in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world. Though the film made a big splash and did well with the help of Asian-America's wealthy tech people buying out theaters, thus bolstering box office numbers, critics pointed out it wasn't the best image for Asians and Asian-Americans who are not, indeed, all rich. In a backlash of sorts, stories of the middle class have emerged, bringing us to The Farewell, which started out as a radio segment titled “What You Don't Know” as part of a small anthology called “In Defense of Ignorance” on This American Life.

The Farewell is Wang's second feature film. Her first, where she was a “first time writer/director” and was about two white people, didn't grab much attention. With Farewell, Wang has hit upon that true authenticity factor, as the film mirrors her own life. The same holds true for director Minhal Baig, whose first feature garnered no real traction, while her second, semi-autobiographical film has made some noise.

Seeing a trend here?

Wang's “based on an actual lie” story has the cleverest tagline and was also heavily supported by Sundance from development through to distribution by A24, who has spared nothing to getting the word out about the film.

Wang's work and her rise gives way to interesting discussions about race and gender in Hollywood. A common thread in Wang's Twitter feed is her catchphrase, “craft is colorblind.” See, Wang is tired of only being compared to other Asian-American filmmakers. It's pretty goofy when you think about it. It's like saying, “Hi, I'm Asian reporter Tricia Takanawa” from The Simpsons; a blatant mockery of how Asian-American women are portrayed. It'd be considered pretty weird if Lulu stuck her hand out and said, “Hi, I'm Asian-American filmmaker Lulu Wang.”

Asian-American women who make films are just filmmakers and that is enough. To lump them all together all the time is subtle racism.

When discussing film canons, American filmmakers should be just that: American filmmakers. Wang's work has been likened to that of others before her—including renowned white, male directors. Wang compares her own work to Mike Leigh. The difference is, Mike Leigh's cast is afforded forty days living together to “become a family.” Wang's cast got “a dinner” to get to know each other and were encouraged to spend time together outside of official cast meet-ups and events. A Twitter commentator named Ryan Mecum compares Wang to Wes Anderson; apt when you consider color palettes and camera movements. Wang says that Asian-American film is not a genre, and she'd rather people ask her things like, “What's a family film look like?” She continues, “Do they ask white filmmakers, ‘what's a white film look like?’”.

I can speak to this personally. Growing up as an Asian-American woman, we're not brought up to be completely “individualistic,” i.e., American. A theme of The Farewell is that the difference between the East and the West is that in the East, being part of a family unit is more important than being out for oneself. Wang started The Farewell in radio show form for NPR, where she didn't have to “turn the story towards [herself].” In film form, you have to examine the lead character Billi (Awkwafina's role).

You have to point the camera at her and go from being an observer of all the actions to crafting Billi's sense of self and place. The Farewell expounds on what Wang calls the “in-betweeness.” Something I can personally relate to, being a “Third Culture Kid.” We are not completely Asian, and not completely American, but something in the middle; a third thing all its own.

I saw Wang speak on a panel at an event organized by Kollaboration (#Empower2019), which brings Asian-Americans together to talk about culture in Downtown Los Angeles. I got up at the end and asked her about portrayals of Asian-American women in film by others. People who are not Women of Color, listen to her words: “Let’s be clear. Empathy and pity are not the same thing. When non-POC, non-female, tell our stories, they may think they’re creating empathy, but they unconsciously channel pity, which can often look like empathy but it’s not. The difference is hierarchy.” The best way to see an authentic Asian-American woman's story onscreen? Have one write and direct the story.

Wang has also talked about notes and push-back she's gotten on her work. For this project, it was requested that she make the bride in the story white, instead of Asian. Wang said it would change everything—how the family perceived her wouldn't work. Whiteness trying to push its way in really breaks authenticity and de-centers Women of Color and our stories. The point: let the Woman of Color tell the story the way it's meant to be told without Caucasian interjection. Wang got her way and kept the elements true to herself, and the result we get is the real deal.

Wang has also stated that her work can't ever “not be Asian-American,” because that is what she is. Her mother is a writer and her father worked as a diplomat to Russia. Wang tells of her childhood speaking “Chinglish” with her family and that when she's in China, she doesn't understand the news or the jokes.

Wang's next projects on deck are about being Asian-American. She's creating a television show about her brother—who got left out of The Farewell—which gives us a slice of life of a man who is a Chinese-American chef dealing with racism and food appropriation. A subject we've seen a lot about in the news when white people think they can make ethnic food “better” than the originators of said ethnic food. Wang says her next feature is “grounded sci-fi about a family.” We'll see what that means soon hopefully!

 

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