Why ‘The Farewell’ Flopped In China

The Farewell” has flopped in China with a dismal $261,000 opening weekend gross, and a cumulative of $580,000 so far, once again proving the difficulty of creating content that resonates equally on both sides of the Pacific — even when a story is set in China, features Chinese talent, and unfolds primarily in Mandarin.

Although the film was distributed directly by Maoyan, one of China’s two top online ticketing platforms, the critical darling made a paltry $78,000 on opening day Jan. 11, 2020, accounting for just 1% of the country’s total screenings. Shows were on average only 0.5% occupied, the firm’s own data showed. And opening day was its best day. Percentages of daily total screenings dropped even further since. As it entered its second weekend “The Farewell” had dropped to a dismal 25th at the box office. In another week, it will be utterly swallowed by a swarm of big local blockbusters coming out for Chinese New Year.

“Only like 70,000 people in all of China have seen our film. It’s a bit ridiculous,” lamented the China-side producer Jane Zheng.

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Actor Tzi Ma, who plays Awkwafina’s father in the film, likely echoed the thoughts of much of Hollywood when he told Variety he was “really surprised” at the outcome. “I was almost assuming that they wouldn’t even see this as a foreign film. Really, there’s only two Americans cast in the entire thing.” In a country where kids are often raised by their grandparents, he expected it to “hit home a lot more (in China) than anywhere else.”

The failure to do so makes the film one of the most interesting case studies of Asian Hollywood content’s crossover potential since 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” That rom-com made $238 million globally and was hailed as a milestone for Asian American representation in the U.S. But it crash landed with less than $2 million in China, where many people found it difficult to relate to and took offense at what they felt was an overly stereotypical depiction of Asian families and values.

Based on the real-life experiences of China-born American director Lulu Wang, the more intimate and down-to-earth “The Farewell” has nevertheless also failed to connect with a broad Chinese public. Contributing factors include a mixed response to its “Chinese-ness” and a botched marketing approach that failed to convince exhibitors to take a chance on the title.

The film’s original release date was moved from late November to January in hopes of avoiding tougher competitors and riding the U.S. awards season wave. But Oscar nominations ultimately failed to materialize.

“It was very, very difficult to prove to the cinemas that there are people who want to watch it. Without that, even people who want to watch the film won’t be able to find a screening nearby,” Zheng said. “We were quite conservative about how it would do in China, but we did think with [Awkwafina’s] best actress [Golden Globe] win it could be better.”

Working with Maoyan, the title got a bit lost in the shuffle. Maoyan failed to do more “stylized or customized” promotion that could have given a targeted boost to an unusual film that lacked any locally known stars, Zheng admitted. “Maoyan has so many films they’re distributing in any single period, and this was definitely not one of their main projects. But you shouldn’t overlook the specificities of each film,” she said.

“There was an over-reliance on big data, which indicated the audience would be young urban women ages 20-29 in first- and second-tier cities. “We could have reached out to a wider audience base, because to me this is a film for all age groups and all generations,” said Zheng.

At least one scene in the Chinese version was censored. It concerned a story told by the mother of Awkwafina’s character at a banquet about how an American church opened its doors to her daughter and let her use their pianos when the family couldn’t afford one of their own.

From a content perspective, local audiences seem to have deemed “The Farewell” too Chinese to be accepted as a bearer of its American values, and yet too American to be accepted as genuinely Chinese.

Director Wang clearly anticipated this sort of reaction even before the China release. On the red carpet at the Golden Globes, she told Variety: “I do think this film is a little bit more Chinese than ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ but it’s still told through the perspective of an American woman.” Despite a “really tremendous response so far,” she felt viewers would “see that it’s not really a fully Chinese movie,” concluding: “I’m really interested to see how they respond to that.”

Responses have, in the end, been mixed. The title has garnered lackluster 7.3 out of 10 on the taste-making review site Douban and a relatively poor 8.4 out of 10 on Maoyan’s more populist platform.

Many online reviews from viewers have gushed over how recognizable many of the characters and family dynamics felt to them, saying it made them cry or even decide to go home early for Chinese New Year. “I felt like I was at my own family’s gathering or wedding or tomb-sweeping. This film is too real,” one Douban commenter wrote.

But conversely, that familiarity has also bred a feeling of “so what?” The banter, scenes and visuals that give “The Farewell” its charm for American audiences lack novelty for most mainland viewers. “The humor is from Lulu’s perspective, so a lot of it is just too normal for us — things that just happen every day. Do we find it funny? Yes, but maybe less so,” Zheng said.

Other common comments critiqued everything from Awkwafina’s looks — which differ sharply from cliched Chinese beauty standards — to the depiction of Changchun. The city where the story is set was seen as too old-fashioned and so portraying a backward image of China.

“When a Chinese story is told by a so-called non-Chinese person, some people here immediately build up a defensive wall, saying that this is not your story, you don’t have the right to tell it,” said Zheng. “There’s this instant response here that this can’t be authentic.” It’s a spirit she predicts will carry through to Disney’s “Mulan,” manifesting in similarly “very negative and nasty” comments.

Independent critic Yu Yaqin further explained people’s dissatisfaction. “Chinese culture and Chinese people today are really complicated, and have all sorts of differing values. This film wasn’t as bad as ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ but it still over-simplified things.” Furthermore, the topics of cultural difference between China and America and of American-born Chinese identity are ones that current mainland audiences “don’t understand and really aren’t interested in.”

Another Douban reviewer described the disconnect by saying: “It’s not surprising the film is getting the cold shoulder. China in the eyes of foreigners is always more Chinese than China in the eyes of Chinese people.”

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