Feminism on Film: Lulu Wang's The Farewell

George Bell revisits Lulu Wang's 2019 film in a feminist light

George Bell
20th March 2021
Image credits: IMDb
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) is probably my favourite film. From its fantastic performances to the fascinating insight into Chinese culture to a tear-jerking finish, it is a film I could watch over and over.

But whenever I have watched it, admittedly partially due to me being a guy, I never thought to view it from a feminist perspective. So, in preparation for this article, I re-watched The Farewell (again), trying to look from that perspective – and it made an already perfect film even better.

If you haven’t heard of The Farewell what a sad, cold rock you must live under. Wang’s second feature film depicts a scattered Chinese family who return home to say goodbye to the matriarch of the family, Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-Zen), after a terminal diagnosis by way of a fake wedding. This is because unlike everyone else, Nai Nai doesn’t know she has but months to live.

It is clear how much love Lulu Wang has for one of the most important women in her life, her grandma.

Yet despite being shielded from the truth of her illness, Nai Nai couldn’t be further the easy cop-out of the weak grandmother. She is a commanding presence whenever on screen, being the glue that keeps the family together, going above and beyond to care for those she loves. Nai Nai embodies the strength of a woman, not just by being purposeful and commanding in what she wants (we all know it was meant to be lobster) but kind, gentle and funny in the smaller things she does. Based on her own experiences, it is clear how much love Lulu Wang has for one of the most important women in her life, her grandma.

At the heart of The Farewell is the relationship between a granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), and her grandmother. Nai Nai inspires Billi to be her own person, saying how it is good for her to be independent and while she does show interest in a partner for Billi, Nai Nai never pushes it, clearly respectful of where her granddaughter is in her life at the moment. When Billi returns to New York we can see just how influential Nai Nai has been over such a short time, with her embodying her grandmother as she repeats the exercise routine from an earlier scene.

Image credit: IMDb

The act of keeping such a secret as a terminal diagnosis from a person is no easy feat and is something that is almost revealed several times throughout the film. The family clearly struggles as they silently grieve for their beloved family member, but it is the men who consistently almost give the game away. Excessive drinking and inconvenient outbursts of emotion are all the men are good for in The Farewell, while it is the women who really get shit done. It’s refreshing to see the traditional stereotype grief given to the man, and the woman be the one to keep things afloat. Not only is it an interesting dynamic, but a more realistic and healthy portrayal of how both grief and emotions aren’t linked to a person’s gender.

Drawing on her own life, Wang created a deeply personal film that is technically and thematically perfect, all while breaking down stale gender stereotypes

It is no secret at all that without Lulu Wang, this film wouldn’t even exist, let alone be as good as it is. Wang has been involved in every asset of The Farewell by directing, writing, and even helping with the score by playing the piano. Drawing on her own life, Wang created a deeply personal film that is technically and thematically perfect, all while breaking down stale gender stereotypes. Awkwafina’s Billi is one of the highlights of the film thanks to her humour, relatability, and emotional core, but stands out thanks to Wang’s commitment to resisting cliched characteristics and striving for her own perspective.

In an interview with The Guardian, Lulu Wang says to “approach everything with the audacity of a mediocre white man” and “take on the audacity of saying, ‘I don’t care if you don’t understand” as well as how she would “love it if white men were asked the same questions as me”. It’s clear that as a filmmaker, Wang isn’t just wanting to make fantastic films, but call out the current standard of the industry and make it more inclusive for all, highlighting that if a white man can get away with something, any woman of colour is just as entitled to do the same thing.

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AUTHOR: George Bell
One half film addict, one part computer nerd. All parts Croc lover

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