One of the most celebrated of this year’s films has been The Farewell, a small-budget independent movie made by the young Chinese-American director Lulu Wang. Tipped for the 2019 Oscars, it has received critical panegyrics in most leading U.S. media outlets (the Wall Street Journal: “funny, emotionally intricate”) and was the subject of no fewer than four lengthy and laudatory pieces in the New York Times. It was also a major hit at the annual film festival in my hometown of Jerusalem.
The Farewell is indeed an unusually intelligent as well as emotionally engaging movie. Its scenes have that rare quality of bursting continually into one’s consciousness for days after viewing it, evoking thoughts deeper than one’s initial impression and revealing an artful coherence between the film’s tiniest details and its largest ideas.
Yet, for me, this process of dawning awareness has been a disconcerting one, not unlike the National Basketball Association’s recently dawning awareness of the complexities of its lucrative relations with the People’s Republic.
The main character in The Farewell is the Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Bili, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York who learns that her beloved Nei Nei (Chinese for paternal grandmother) has just been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. But Nei Nei’s family in China has decided to keep this news from the matriarch herself. Bili and her parents travel from New York to the city of Changchun in northeast China, ostensibly to celebrate the hastily arranged wedding of Bili’s first cousin Hao Hao but really to say goodbye to the oblivious Nei Nei.
The film is closely based on an almost identical episode in Lulu Wang’s family when her own grandmother Wei Wei contracted cancer in 2013 and Lulu and her family traveled to Changchun on a similar pretext. Thus, the movie, as its humorous tagline says, is “Based on an Actual Lie.”
The Farewell’s emotional and philosophical drama circles around the question of whether or not the family will tell Nei Nei that she is dying. Bili believes that they should, and is uneasy at her own complicity in the lie. “It’s her life,” she says over dinner one night. “What if there are things she still wants to do?” (Especially good are The Farewell’s depictions of such family dramas, usually enacted around dining-room tables heaving with mountains of enticing-looking food.)
Bili’s uncle Haibin retorts that hers is a Western, individualist view. The Chinese way, he explains, privileges family and community. By keeping the bad news from Nei Nei, the family is practicing a higher, collective virtue, bearing the painful knowledge on her behalf. Bili’s mother adds: “There is a Chinese saying [that] people get cancer and then they die,” explaining that “it’s not the cancer that they die of, it’s the fear.” Truth can kill, whereas concealment, implies the mother, may even heal.
The hospital and its medical staff fully support this deception. Bili approaches one handsome young doctor for advice. In perfect English, he replies that although he has studied medicine in the UK, he believes that the Chinese way of keeping bad news from the patient is best. When Nei Nei sends her maid to collect X-ray results from the hospital, Bili herself dashes to intercept the woman and urges the technicians to falsify the report, which they obligingly do.
The lie survives the hilariously tacky yet touching wedding party during which a succession of drunken family members break down in weeping, apparently at the joy of the nuptials but really in sorrow at the impending demise of their loving and beloved grandmother. Finally, Chinese values having prevailed, Bili and her family bid Nei Nei a tearful farewell. Waving goodbye as her Nei Nei recedes into insignificance through the back window of the taxi, Bili returns to New York with the secret intact.
But there is a twist. (Spoiler alert.) In the very last frame of the film a photo appears of Lulu Wang’s own grandmother looking happy and healthy. The caption: “Six years after her diagnosis, Wei Wei is still with us.” Grandma’s resilience has triumphed, and the family’s policy of concealment has been vindicated.
Is The Farewell simply a charming tale of family love and reunion that eschews politics and brings out our common humanity? Well, not entirely. For the film’s big themes are self-censorship and the repression of truth. About this, one wishes that its reviewers had more critical insight, minimal historical knowledge, and greater respect for the director’s intelligence.
Though unnoted in any of the dozen reviews I’ve read, there are telling moments when Wang chooses deliberately to allude to China’s recent history in a way that suggests full self-knowledge of what her movie cannot say, and of the compromises entailed in its making, in the process raising disturbing questions about both it and its reception.
For example, over the grandmother’s bed is a photo of the young Nei Nei with her late husband. Both are in army uniform. Indeed, as Nei Nei tells Bili with a fond and wistful sigh, they met during the war.
That would presumably be the Chinese civil war of 1945-9: the most recent conflict in which a Chinese woman of Nei Nei’s age could have fought. Waged between the Nationalists (the Kuomingtang) and the Communists, it was the war through which Mao Zedong seized power. Since Nei Nei is still enjoying a comfortable life in the 21st century, it is safe to assume that she was not fighting on the Nationalist side. During the long Mao era, those who did so, or who were assumed to have favored the Kuomingtang, were persecuted and often killed.
In one of the worst mass atrocities committed by either side during that civil war, the Communists in their siege of Changchun—the same city in which The Farewell is set and was filmed—intentionally starved to death 370,000 civilians. This, as the Chinese historian Du Bin writes in his 2017 book Changchun Hunger Siege, is a forbidden subject in China today.
Another historically muted moment takes place at the wedding feast, where Nei Nei is seated with three well-preserved, white-haired gentlemen whom she introduces to her granddaughter as comrades alongside whom she fought in the war. “They went on to become senior officials in the government,” Nei Nei adds with some pride. “Ah, but we’re long retired,” smiles one of the disarmingly modest elders. Then, having drunk too much rice liquor, he confesses how much he loved Nei Nei during the war, but she married a different comrade in arms. When his friends mock this maudlin admission, he exclaims: “What, should I take this secret with me to the grave?”
One wonders how much more rice liquor the amiable old man would have had to drink before starting to reminisce about what he and his friends actually did as “senior officials in the government,” divulging even more about what he might have been better advised to take to his grave.
Were they senior enough, for instance, to have participated in the slaughter of millions of landowners in 1947-51? Where were they on the party ladder during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-61, which murdered and/or starved to death tens of millions of peasants? Wouldn’t they have been reaching the apogee of their careers around the time of the “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76—the horrific nationwide purge of real and imagined dissidents through torture, public beatings and rape, destruction of books, manuscripts, artwork, libraries, and museums, and the shooting, burning alive, or drowning of an estimated two million people, mostly party members and intellectuals?
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The true toll of the Culture Revolution is unknown; some historians place the numbers of deaths in a range from five to as many as twenty million people. Its tyranny gripped every sector of China’s economy, industry, government, and culture. Any “senior government official” who survived would have had to have been at least complicit in the persecution.
Nothing of this is mentioned, or even acknowledged, by the old comrades at the wedding feast laughing over long-suppressed secrets. To imagine what that means, cinematically, picture a film about a homecoming story set in present-day Germany, with Grandma proudly introducing her thoroughly affable World War II army chums who later in the war became high officials in the Nazi party, without a hint of a suggestion about what they had done in their senior positions. Could such a film even be made?
I am not saying that any movie about any country must focus on the most ethically problematic features of that nation’s past. To take an imprecise but instructive parallel, it would be absurd to insist that every film set in the United States address the history of black slavery. The U.S. is a teeming and capacious country, with forebears spanning the good, the bad, and the ugly, and formed by far more than the horror of slavery, immensely consequential though that was.
But now suppose a movie choosing to allude, if only in passing, to slavery and to present three historical slave owners as entirely likable characters, while remaining utterly silent about the suffering they inflicted, and even suggesting that insofar as slavery had any enduring effects on the U.S., those have been only salutary ones. Whatever its other merits, the film would be thoroughly denounced as white supremacist apologetics and could not be shown in a single Indie movie theater in the land, far less being feted by the New York Times.
Why, then, does the director, Lulu Wang, make these peripheral, profoundly troubling, yet apparently needless references to the Chinese state? Why not narrow her lens to focus on the purely domestic?
We can begin to answer these questions by noting, first, that most of The Farewell was filmed on location in Changchun over 24 days in June 2018. At the risk of stating the obvious, China is an authoritarian state. An American director could not have filmed a feature movie in the streets, squares, public buildings, and residential neighborhoods of a city of seven million people without the full permission and detailed cooperation of the government.
Second, there are the publicly available facts about the Chinese government’s broad censorship of movies, both domestic and foreign. This censorship is instituted by law. Thus, the Film Industry Promotion Law, which became effective in March 2017, expansively defines forbidden content in movies to include (among much else),
violations of the basic principles of the Constitution of China, incitement of resistance to or undermining of implementation of the Constitution or laws, endangerment of the national unity, . . . leaking state secrets; endangering national security; harming national dignity, honor or interests.
The policy is vigorously enforced. As the Financial Times reports, this year’s flagship film festival in China was gutted by increasingly draconian government censorship that banned several domestic films, especially those dealing with sensitive historical subjects. The People’s Republic also routinely bans or censors Hollywood films for distribution in China. Dozens of examples from recent years include Skyfall, Men in Black 3, Christopher Robin, and Top Gun: Maverick. Hollywood studios, shamefully, submit; after all, more movie tickets were sold last year in China than in the United States.
So we know that (a) this movie could not have been made without the permission and support of the Chinese authorities, and (b) China routinely censors movies whose content it dislikes. What connects these two facts with my observation of the wholly positive light in which The Farewell casts its few references to the Chinese state and its recent history? Did, for instance, Lulu Wang cravenly capitulate at the first hint of pressure, or did she heroically make the most honest movie she could in the face of brutal threats? Or did not a word need to be spoken for it to be entirely clear what a young filmmaker, with family still in China, and dependent on the help of the Chinese government, could say and what she had to suppress?
I don’t expect we will ever know the answer to these questions. Nor is our knowledge likely to be advanced by American critics and interviewers who have been strikingly incurious about this aspect of the film’s production. Consider a brief exchange from an interview that Wang gave to Terry Gross of NPR:
WANG: . . . You know, and I can’t talk too much about [why her family came to America] because . . .
GROSS: I understand. Yeah.
WANG: My family doesn’t want me to.
GROSS: You have family there. Yeah.
WANG: Yeah. But I think mainly for political reasons.
GROSS: What’s it like for you to hear the president’s rhetoric about immigrants, knowing what your family went through . . . ?
Just as Wang is about to say why she cannot talk too much about politics, qualifying her interviewer’s suggestion that this is due to fears for her family still in China by saying instead that she is being reticent “mainly” for unspecified “political reasons,” Gross cuts her off. Instead, the interviewer decorously pivots the conversation from the uncomfortable topic of Chinese repression to the more congenial subject of Donald Trump.
Indeed, whenever The Farewell itself touches on comparisons between the U.S. and China, they are not to the former’s advantage. We learn that Bili’s family’s immigration to the United States was traumatic, corroding her parents’ marriage and contributing to her father’s drinking problem. In one scene, Bili sobs to her mother that throughout her American immigrant childhood, her mother looked constantly terrified. We glimpse the rejection letter that Bili receives for a Guggenheim Fellowship to support her writing, which troubles to inform her—and us—that precisely 176 fellowships were awarded to more than 10,000 applicants. The implication is that America’s promise to enable the self-chosen pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens is highly unequal in its application.
These comments on the harsher side of the American dream are entirely unmatched in the film by any corresponding critique of, or even allusion to, the rigors and hardships of contemporary life in China. But just this may help us understand why the filmmaker makes her oblique historical references at all. For—and here I wish to compliment the movie’s deep intelligence—The Farewell, to repeat, is all about self-censorship and the repression of truth for communally wholesome ends.
Wang has made a sweet, touching movie about her grandmother that is set and filmed at the site of one of the worst war crimes of the 20th century, a crime that to this day no one in China speaks of. Moreover, both of Bili’s fictional grandparents and Lulu Wang’s real-life grandparents fought on the side of the perpetrators. In making no mention of any of this, I would argue, Wang has introduced her grandmother’s amiable war comrades with their light-hearted talk of secrets long hidden precisely to acknowledge, albeit in the gentlest possible way, the overpowering presence of history that she herself feels constrained to repress.
I might go farther. Recall that Bili, the director’s alter ego, rushes to the hospital and, overcoming her American liberal scruples, colludes with the authorities in doctoring her grandmother’s X-ray images. Could this telling scene be meant to disclose the filmmaker’s consciousness of her personal complicity in censoring the images of her own film? If so, it is done so subtly as to be barely noticeable.
The only reviewer to sense an unspoken political dimension to the film was Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, who observed that
a larger and more daring film (or a Bili more fired up by American liberalism) might have asked how this laudable devotion to the common cause can be used or abused by an overarching state, and you wonder how The Farewell would play right now in Hong Kong, where young protesters would like to keep their lives to themselves.
Yes, indeed. But does Lane imagine that such a “larger and more daring film” could have been shot in mainland China? Or, for that matter, shown there, as The Farewell is now being shown in Chinese movie theaters? I would be surprised to learn that there was any material at all in the U.S.-released version that the Chinese government censors found unacceptable.
Lulu Wang’s choice is one faced increasingly by Western individuals, businesses, and governments, especially those for whom refusing to engage with China is next to impossible.
Officials of my own country, Israel, for example, have stressed that they cannot afford to forgo the economic and geopolitical benefits of a strong relationship with China, despite warnings that Israel’s involvement with China may incur a cost in the Jewish state’s standing with its Western allies, especially the United States. And then there is the recent blowup between Beijing and the NBA, to which I alluded at the beginning.
The question about engagement is: on what terms? As a foreign-policy analysis in the London Times put it in August,
The developed democracies of the world long engaged with China in the belief that it would one day integrate into the U.S.-led global order and become more like them. Only now are they waking up to the reality that China has no intention of opening up its political system and is instead seeking to shape the way other countries think about its authoritarian model.
The Times’s analysts were responding to the shift in China’s own foreign policy since President Trump’s apparent turn away from American global leadership. More actively projecting a benign image of China abroad, Beijing is now estimated to spend $10 billion annually on “soft-power” promotion. As President Xi said in a speech in 2017, “our country’s underlying values hold greater appeal than ever before.”
Capitulating to Chinese demands on the one hand and uncompromising resistance on the other aren’t the only options for engagement. Cooperation can come with principled conditions and, if compromises must be made, then at least their existence and the attendant costs and benefits can be acknowledged explicitly. Only if both sides of the calculus are transparent is it possible to assess a decision to engage with China.
In this light, it is worth pointing out that Wang’s choices are also not the only option available to a young Chinese-American filmmaker. The documentary One Child Nation, which, like The Farewell, appeared this past summer, makes a different set of choices. It offers a blistering account of China’s one-child policy, administered with extreme violence over almost 40 years through forced abortions, sterilizations, and the mass murder and abandonment of countless millions of newborn baby girls.
One Child Nation, which also meditates on the role of propaganda and censorship in enforcing the one-child policy, was decidedly not made with Chinese government cooperation. The co-director, Nanfu Wang (no relation to Lulu Wang), traveled through the Chinese countryside filming interviews with a single camera while her co-director in New York followed her movements via satellite lest she be discovered and suffer real-time retribution from the Chinese authorities.
The Chinese censors have already removed references to One Child Nation from the results of Internet searches in the country, and it is safe to say that the movie will not be showing in Chinese theaters any time soon. Such are the costs of electing to make an uncompromisingly honest film about China.
As for The Farewell, clearly the cost-benefit calculus is different. The movie stands as its own eloquent testimony to the benefits of engagement. It shows American audiences the charm of domestic life in China, the warmth of Chinese families, the strength of traditional values, and our common humanity across a political and cultural divide.
But precisely since the film is not and cannot be explicit about its costs, we should be. They include ignoring how these same wholesome traditional values have been conscripted by the government as tools of repression, helping obliterate the memory of millions of victims of Chinese Communist persecution and colluding with a brutal, oppressive regime in disseminating a whitewashed picture of itself to the world.
To paraphrase Bili, in her unabashedly American phase, “Without knowledge, how can you choose?”