In her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, the scholar Sara Ahmed describes the “happiness duty” as an expectation levied on immigrants by the liberal ideas of multiculturalism. In return for full acceptance, Western democratic societies demand that immigrants enthusiastically acquiesce to a new nation’s cultural values. (For a recent example, look no further than the Trumpian right’s outrage over Representative Ilhan Omar’s temerity to criticize her adopted home.) Under no circumstance can these immigrants retain secondary attachments that may lessen appreciation for their new country. In this way, happiness, Ahmed writes, functions as “a technology of citizenship.”
Mainstream Asian American cinema, when it has had the chance, has often told happy stories. In classics like The Joy Luck Club and in more contemporary fare like Crazy Rich Asians, America compares favorably to the disorderly Old World of Asia, while the immigrant trajectory remains gilded with the promise of generational progress. Crazy Rich Asians—which crammed an entire continent into the backdrop of a classically Western marriage plot—doesn’t present Asian countries as bearing viable alternative ways of life. The romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe and the ABC show Fresh Off the Boat also wholeheartedly cast their lot with America, handling the Asian American experience of racism by swiftly trouncing it in one-off demonstrations. Inherently assimilationist, these stories rest on the conclusion that Asian characters are just as “American”—sometimes more “American”—than their tormentors.
An atmosphere of unhappiness—a mix of longing and defeat—is what sets Lulu Wang’s The Farewell apart from its peers. The film follows Bili (Awkwafina), an unemployed twentysomething who has lived in New York since her mother and father (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) emigrated from China when she was six. If her parents are proud and naturalized Americans, Bili is an ambivalent heir, with memories of a childhood spent happily elsewhere. Bili learns that her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), or Nai Nai, is dying of stage-four lung cancer. But the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis, and Bili is asked to forgo a trip back to China, where the family has orchestrated a fake wedding for Bili’s cousin as an excuse to say goodbye.
Bili goes anyway, arriving at her grandmother’s apartment unannounced and just in time for dinner. Nai Nai is ecstatic that her far-flung relatives have gathered in one place; everyone else is duly miserable. The film prepares its viewers to expect conflict between Americanized Bili, who thinks the diagnosis should be public knowledge, and her family, who see their subterfuge as a filial duty. Yet as with the family’s wedding, this tension is a well-executed decoy. While most mainstream portrayals of Asia tend to dramatize its essential differences from the West with as much anxiety as condescension, The Farewell allows for no easy lines between American liberalism and Asian communitarianism. Bili is too confused, and too sad, to play proxy in some civilizational face-off.
The central conflict in the film is thus not ideological or cultural but emotional. In The Farewell, China is a place of dark geometry; angular cranes and housing blocs tower into the frame, more brutal than brutalist. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians gussied up Asian modernity in luxury fabrics and candied colors, The Farewell calls to mind the portentous aesthetic of Jia Zhangke, a Chinese filmmaker renowned for chronicling the changes that convulsed his country after Deng Xiaoping opened its economy. Jia’s films ask what happens to those living on the margins of free-market upheaval; The Farewell asks if we can understand those margins as international. Bili, truly an immigrant of our globalized time, can’t make rent in New York, and discovers on her return to China that her childhood residence, like so many others in China’s rapacious housing development drive, was razed. In Wang’s world, home is as elusive as happiness. “Everything was different,” she tells her mother. “Everything was gone.”
Crazy Rich Asians used wealth as the ultimate assimilation tool, allowing its characters to feel at ease wherever they went, so long as they could afford the cover charge. The family in The Farewell presents a more vexed case. Bili’s father has not seen his brother, who lives in Japan, in 25 years. Both feel crushing guilt for leaving their mother in China, even as their cousin contemplates rebooting this generational cycle of estrangement all over again by sending her own son abroad. Bili, meanwhile, slouches through the film, increasingly cognizant of the losses that have defined her life, nearly swayed by the prospect of moving back to China. “In America we don’t have a lot of family,” she tells a banquet hall of relatives. “I’ve missed you.”
Migration has placed a profound strain on the family, rendering those who should be familiar—brothers, mothers, cousins—into the intractably alien. No quick resolutions or sunset endings materialize. Everyone struggles, and when the characters claim only half-convincingly that they are crying tears of joy, not sadness, it clarifies the central drama of the film. The Farewell is about individuals who have successfully assimilated into new and prosperous countries, who have withstood the whiplash of globalization, and yet they remain troubled, unsatisfied people.
In Crazy Rich Asians, a love-marriage ratifies the immigrant character’s Americanness by proving that her individualism can lead to true happiness. It seems significant in this light that The Farewell’s wedding is a deceptive stand-in for a wake. While Wang’s film revels in the joys of family life, including immigrant family life, it reminds viewers that the immigrant is defined by loss. Some of The Farewell’s most quietly beautiful moments are also its spookiest: Bili wakes briefly to the presence of her dead grandfather; in New York, she sees her Nai Nai framed by the passing of a ghostly subway car. Though Asian American cinema typically addresses immigration in a realist mode, the actual experience can also be surreal, disjointed, phantasmal.
It makes sense that a fledgling canon would insist on nonnegotiable American identities for its characters. These movies, after all, bear the burden of refuting a historical legacy that has framed Asian-Americans as aliens, double agents, or not worthy of recognition. To undercut these racist beliefs, films have had to shunt characters into a rigid binary that insists on America as the powerful redeeming force for an Asia marked by excess, authoritarianism, and a hidebound tradition. The possibility that some immigrants can continue to possess conflicting and multiple allegiances is downplayed. The cost of insisting on Asians’ humanity has been to accept that America is the politically and culturally superior destination—the place where immigrants, surely, feel the most free.
A recent New Yorker review of The Farewell remarked that a “larger and more daring film” would have questioned how the family’s secret-keeping relates to the Chinese government’s violation of its citizens’ privacy, and how the film “would play right now in Hong Kong, where young protesters would like to keep their lives to themselves.” Only in Western countries, it seems, are characters allowed the privilege of telling stories beyond the reach of the nation-state. This thinking, which establishes a false divide between the political woes of nonwhite characters and the more philosophical concerns of the Western canon, is part of the pervasive logic that The Farewell works to undo. The problem of belonging is a universal one, whether it surfaces from the loss of a country, of a happy childhood, or of some mythic state of innocence. Immigrants, for whom such experiences often overlap in intimate ways, can tell some of the most compelling stories about the human condition and the dislocating shocks of modernity. It remains to be seen if their audiences will listen.