‘The Farewell’ is up for best ‘foreign’ film. Chinese audiences don’t think it should be.

Dec 30, 2019

The critically acclaimed film is competing in the Golden Globes under the foreign-language film category, but in China, the film is seen as a distinctly American story. The discrepancy highlights the challenge of appealing to audiences on both sides of the world.

Few films have captured the Chinese-American experience as poignantly as the critically acclaimed The Farewell.

But when it made the Golden Globes, there was an uproar because it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Critics of the decision pointed out that while the film is mostly set in China and the characters mostly speak in Chinese, the plot—centered on an immigrant family—is an ostensibly American story.

Ironically, many viewers in China saw director Lulu Wang’s vision of the country as inauthentic, calling it a foreigner’s perspective feigning to be Chinese.

The discrepancy highlights the unique challenge that The Farewell faces in satisfying three distinct audience groups: Asian-American, Chinese, and mainstream American.

It’s not the first time that an Asian-American film has met a cool reception in Asia.

It’s not the first time that an Asian-American film has met a cool reception in Asia.

“Crazy Rich Asians” met a cool reception when it opened in China last year.
“Crazy Rich Asians” met a cool reception when it opened in China last year. / Photo: Warner Bros

Last year, box office sensation Crazy Rich Asians ran into similar issues when it was released in Singapore and China. Critics there called it an Asian movie that pandered to the American gaze.

(Read more: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ opens in China to an offended audience)

As with Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell’s performance in China has been a subject of interest because it betrays a widely-held assumption in the industry—that a film which features Chinese dialogue and/or is set in China ought to enjoy some amount of home-turf advantage.

Whether it’s a feel-good rom-com or arthouse indie flick, films that feature immigrant narratives in fact have a uniquely hard time winning the approval of audiences from countries where the immigrants are from.

Identity crisis

China and the United States are the world’s two largest movie markets, but until recently, no film has straddled both worlds in terms of narrative and identity quite like The Farewell.

Set mostly in northeastern China, the film tells the story of a family’s concerted effort to come together and say goodbye to the family matriarch without disclosing to her that she is dying of terminal cancer—all under the guise of a hasty wedding for her grandson. 

The critically acclaimed film depicts lives and relationships that span continents, cultures, and languages in such a way that defies traditional geographic categorizations of film—and it seems to be suffering the same identity crisis as its Chinese-American protagonist Billi.

Awkwafina stars in “The Farewell” as Billi.
Awkwafina stars in “The Farewell” as Billi.

In the United States, The Farewell has enjoyed near universal acclaim, with a freshness score of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But in China, the film has an average score of 7.4 out of 10 on Douban, China’s equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad, but nowhere near the glowing praise The Farewell has garnered in the West.

(Read more: Can an Asian-American film do well in China?)

The reality is that the diversity drive which helped

The Farewell

The reality is that the diversity drive which helped The Farewell triumph in the U.S. means far less for Chinese audiences, who obviously do not lack for Chinese stories on screen.

If anything, what has interested them more is whether a Chinese-American director can convincingly depict China to the average Chinese viewer. In other words, can Wang and The Farewell pass for Chinese?

As a Chinese-American who was born in mainland China, raised in the U.S., and now living in China, I am no stranger to the peculiar pressure of being neither foreign and nor Chinese enough.

The diaspora identity is largely understood by Chinese people as a dilution of one’s origin, a loss of rightful identity, replaced by a harsh, foreign alien one.

Unlike the United States, China is not an immigrant country, and in my experience, the diaspora identity is largely understood by Chinese people as a dilution of one’s origin, a loss of rightful identity, replaced by a harsh, foreign alien one.

Reviews critical of The Farewell usually point to its unrealistic portrayal of China and bring up Wang’s immigrant background so often that I suspect a degree of confirmation bias at play.

After all, domestic Chinese features frequently display highly stylized and unrealistic versions of Chinese life, but they’re far more likely to be considered stylizations than fallacies.

Exaggerations on Wang’s part, on the other hand, might be construed as the director’s failure to understand China.

“The movie depicts local Chinese life, but as a Chinese-American director, Lulu Wang merely depicts her imagined Chinese family relationships,” wrote Douban reviewer Menglishishu. “She pretends to understand, which may satisfy Westerners’ appetite for exotic Oriental culture, but for Chinese audiences, it doesn’t accurately bring this family to life.”

The director, Lulu Wang, was born and raised in Beijing but moved to the United States at the age of 6.
The director, Lulu Wang, was born and raised in Beijing but moved to the United States at the age of 6. / Photo: AFP

Other reviews pick apart details that suggest Wang doesn’t grasp the subtleties of Chinese interactions.

In one scene, Billi’s mother and aunt are debating the merits of sending kids to the United States for school. One film critic, who posts reviews on WeChat under the name Yueyaya, called the scene “contrived.”

“Chinese families do compare their children…but there’s always a focus on outwardly keeping the peace while fighting below the surface,” Yueyaya wrote. “It’s rarely so explosive. But the director did leave China when she was 6, so it is understandable that she struggles to grasp this understanding and subtle cultural display.”

Diversifying stories

Still, much praise for the film in China has been directed at the effort that The Farewell makes in deviating from stereotypical portrayals of the country.

Douban reviewer Sylvia lauded the film for “accurately depicting China without kungfu, without crazy rich Asians, without STEM geniuses, without Western stereotypes of China, just a simple family experiencing cultural clash.”

When I watched The Farewell, I cried during a movie for the first time in my life. So did Isabelle Niu, a journalist at Quartz, who told me, “I am both Billi and her parents, and that makes watching the movie a study of my own immigration experience. After 11 years abroad, I am not Chinese-American but also not not Chinese-American.”

For those of us with our own immigration stories—or have immigrants in our lives—“The Farewell” is an entirely different movie than the one most Chinese audiences saw.

For those of us with our own immigration stories—or have immigrants in our lives—The Farewell is an entirely different movie than the one most Chinese audiences saw.

And just as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which judges the Golden Globes, seemed to struggle with how to categorize The Farewell, it may take a few more movies like it for Chinese audiences to begin differentiating between Chinese and Chinese-American stories.

FilmGolden GlobesThe Farewell