Imagine the scenario: A grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. What would her family do next? Maybe for many Americans, relatives would gather to say their goodbyes and discuss her final arrangements together. In Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” a Chinese family does it their own way: they keep the diagnosis secret from the grandmother and instead arrange a wedding as an excuse for everyone to (furtively) convene and give their last farewells to their matriarch.
The central conflict of the film hinges on anger from Billi (Awkwafina), who was raised in New York for most of her life, at a plan that she believes strips her grandmother’s individual rights. But from an Eastern perspective, it’s thought this strategy protects the sick from the burden of the news. After all, as Billi’s dad says, it’s not cancer that kills them. It’s fear.
“[My producer] has friends who are Chinese-American and when she pitched them the story, they were really shocked, because they said, ‘Wait, you would actually tell your family members?’” the writer-director tells Variety. “The outrage from their perspective was the exact opposite. To me, it spoke to the depth of assumptions that we make about the world and about other people.”
Indeed, Sundance features “The Farewell” and Justin Chon’s “Ms. Purple” are both departures from traditional films in American cinema about family and expressions of love, and they allow the audience to learn about and understand — if not agree with — different value systems that they previously would judge.
“Ms. Purple,” Chon’s follow-up to the acclaimed “Gook,” which won the 2017 Next Audience Award, might similarly perplex some audiences: Kasie (Tiffany Chu), a Korean-American raised in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, refuses to send her dying father to a hospice and instead sacrifices her dreams by working a physically and emotionally demeaning job to support his treatment. While others may transfer their aging parents to a retirement home or hospice, Chon says, “being from Asian cultures, we live with our parents until we die, or a lot of us do.” Self-sacrifice and filial piety are often part of the deal, and in both films, duty to the collective is prioritized over individual wants.
Both works also aim to broaden our understanding of love languages that go beyond the touchy-feely ways familial love is often represented on screen. So many scenes in “The Farewell” and “Ms. Purple” are imbued with tenderness, warmth and devotion, but never “I love you.”
Take Billi’s grandma in “The Farewell”: she never utters the L word, she constantly asks if Billi’s wearing enough clothes, she calls her a “stupid child” (shahaizi) and provides Billi with her favorite snacks. For Wang, this isn’t nagging or a put-down, but rather representation of love in acts of service and terms of endearment. No scene shows off this ethos better than when Billi gets in a cab to go the airport and fly back to the States. That moment is taken from Wang’s own life, and it is her real experience with her family keeping her grandma’s cancer diagnosis secret that inspired the film.
“It’s not satisfying from a Westerner’s perspective of hugs and kisses. Sometimes it is just, ‘Get in the damn car, you’re going to miss your flight.’ ‘No, you go upstairs, it’s too cold. You’re going to get sick,’ ” Wang says. “There’s something not fully cathartic about that, and that’s part of the acceptance that we have to have as immigrants, as children of parents and grandparents of different cultures. It doesn’t always look like what you want it to look like but we have to find a way to recognize the love and accept them and the experience for what it is, rather than try to change it.”
In “Ms. Purple,” Kasie’s arc with the hanbok (a traditional Korean dress) serves as a poignant reminder that we don’t have to choose one culture over another. Her abusive boyfriend gifts her a purple hanbok, and tells her she needs to wear it. But instead of a comforting link to her heritage as it might be for someone else, the hanbok begins to represent for Kasie the burdens of traditionalism and duty her culture has placed on her, and she has to decide for herself whether to shed or keep it.
“I’ve always struggled personally with, ‘You have to do this’ and I’m always like, why? ‘Well it’s because you’re Korean,’ and I’m like, ‘That makes no sense’,” Chon says. “I always think about that. What are the constructive things that we can carry from the old country that can help our lives and that we can take pride in, but what are the things that we can leave behind?’”
Ultimately, Wang and Chon don’t aim to excoriate or laud any culture over the other, but rather, shine a light on Asian and Asian-American narratives that often aren’t told. While Chon says “Crazy Rich Asians” has been a phenomenal asset to the community, he wanted to show the “crazy poor half,” who are sometimes in the shadows.
“My job as an Asian-American filmmaker is to bring empathy to our community and also to represent what’s not being put in front of the masses. And I think the more specific and the more intimate I can get, sometimes that becomes much more universal, for everyone,” Chon says.