‘The Farewell’ w/ Li Lai
Full Transcript of Technicolor Theatre podcast: Season 2, Episode 1
In the first official episode under the Mediaversity banner, filmmaker Aditya Joshi and Mediaversity Reviews founder Li Lai bond over their immigrant backgrounds, the feeling of losing someone overseas, and a mutual love of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019).
Aditya Joshi: Hello, and welcome to Token Theatre, a podcast about representation on film. My name is Aditya Joshi and joining me today, now that she’s finished playing the chicken drinking game with her cousins is Li Lai. Hey Li, how are you doing?
Li Lai: Hi, I’m doing good.
Aditya: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. For those of you who are listening, who might remember our last episode with Drew Haskins about The Talented Mr. Ripley, I had alluded to a very exciting special partnership coming soon. Well, Li is an integral part of that partnership. She is the founder of mediaversityreviews.com. Li, do you want to tell us a bit about the website?
Li: Sure. So I founded Mediaversity at the end of 2016. It’s a website that scores TV shows and movies based on how diverse they are. Since then, we’ve just added a lot of different writers. I’m really, really passionate about giving traditionally marginalized voices the opportunity to learn to grow to get bylines. So I’ve been doing Mediaversity since then. It keeps morphing, it keeps changing, but it’s my baby.
Aditya: We are excited to announce that Token Theatre is now going to be a part of Mediaversity. The first ever Mediaversity podcast, as Li said, you know, the website is super focused on the importance of representation both in bylines and in film. Every review that she writes with her team focuses on not just the quality of the film from an objective perspective, but also on how it represents people of color and women and LGBTQ communities. And obviously, Token Theatre is a podcast all about the movies that are about and for and made by minority communities. So we found this to be a really, really natural partnership. And we’re super excited to be part of the Mediaversity team.
Li: I’m really excited that we’re adding a podcast. When you told me about Token Theatre, it was such an easy, easy, easy decision. I listened to half of an episode and I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is perfect.”
Aditya: This is probably the most natural fit I could have imagined for a podcast.
Aditya: So we’re thrilled to be on a platform like yours and working with you and the folks that you brought on to write reviews. So I’m hoping that you know that the next half season and beyond of Token Theatre will be super fruitful because of this partnership.
Li: I’m excited.
Aditya: Cool. So let’s get down to today’s episode of Token Theatre. So, Li, why don’t you tell us a bit about the movie that you’ve chosen to bring to the podcast today and what it’s about?
Li: Sure. I decided to talk about The Farewell, which is a movie that came out last year. It premiered at Sundance and it’s by Lulu Wang. This movie just means a lot to me on a personal level. It was my very first movie I saw at my first ever Sundance and Sundance was the first film festival I had actually ever attended as press. And so even just by virtue of that it was pretty momentous right away. But then, of course, the themes as well really resonated with my own life. It’s an immigrant story, but it shows all the different generations. You have people who live in China and are still Chinese and continue to live there. Then you have first generation immigrants. Then you have the main character, Billi, she’s Chinese-born and moved to New York at a very young age. But for me, I’m American-born and Taiwanese. There’s a lot of immigrant and intergenerational themes as well as Chinese themes that just resonated with me. It was exciting to see a really uniquely Asian American story. One that isn’t super Chinese or super Americanized. It was really this nuanced blend of what the American-born Chinese experience is.
Aditya: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of importance in how you view a film for the first time and I think you probably watched The Farewell and what I imagined was the best possible environment for a first viewing of a film like this that resonated with you so heavily.
Li: I definitely find that I’m probably a little bit biased because that was a really exciting experience to be able to see it for the first time along with so many other people seeing it for the first time with Lulu Wang in the house. I remember seeing Barry Jenkins sit down near her and I was kind of fangirling. This was before I knew they were dating but it was just exciting. Having the actors there and getting everyone’s first reactions I think was also really powerful because, again, it’s new and nobody heard anything about what this movie was about or what you were about to see. It was a really emotional movie. I basically cried throughout the whole movie. So did a lot of other people.
Aditya: I guess if I could ask you to break down your reason for crying? Would you say it’s mostly … I mean, obviously, I also love this movie. I think you’re right. It’s super emotional and the intergenerational immigrant aspect of it will hit home to anyone who has parents or grandparents who are from overseas. But did you find that you were emotional because of a bad relationship? Or because of the fact that it was a very specific Chinese story? How would you describe the emotions that you had when you first saw the movie?
Li: That’s a really good question. I’m not even sure if I’ve completely processed why I cried so hard. But I can give you a few reasons about maybe why. So for one thing, I mean, just by nature of its themes, it’s about grief. It’s about a grandmother who has cancer and her granddaughter who loves her a lot. That’s already right away kind of a tearjerker of a central plot. Then if you add on other layers… So my own mother, she had cancer and she’s had to fight it off three different times. So the theme of cancer and of family possibly dying, that really hit home. Then you also layer on all of the, again, like we said, those immigrant themes about estrangement, this idea of home that a lot of immigrants feel. Then the people who have emigrated, there’s always a sense of nostalgia or longing for a home, that I think there’s something really tragic in the idea that most of the time these original homes, they no longer exist. Let’s say you immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, then China, like since the 1970s to 2020, that’s completely different. So you leave this country that essentially just doesn’t exist anymore and the only place these immigrants can carry it is in their heart. They think there’s something really tragic and beautiful about that. So those are just a few reasons why I think maybe The Farewell resonated particularly hard.
Aditya: That last theme I find to be so interesting, because you know, I lived in India for four months at the end of 2019 into 2020. I never lived in India before. Like you, I’m born in the U.S. and raised in the U.S. I had only gone to India like every other year for a few weeks at a time. And to me, India was always very much “This is where my grandparents live and I’ll go stay with them and then go to an aunt’s house and go to an uncle’s house.” I never saw anything outside of the inside of my family’s apartments.
Li: I know that feeling.
Aditya: My parents speak of India, their childhood with some reverence. They have very fond memories of growing up there and going to school there. But whenever we would go back to Bombay, which has transformed, you know, beyond recognition in the last 30 years. To your point, they were kind of like after a week or two, they’re like, “Okay, I’m done. I can’t do any more of this version of Bombay.” Where my dad’s parents live is now the super busy Main Street. But when they bought the apartment there 30 years ago, it was kind of a quiet almost suburban area. There’s so much traffic now and people everywhere, and my dad is like, “I can’t handle all these people all over the place all the time, because it doesn’t feel like the India that I grew up in.” I think Awkwafina’s character Billi, even though she was only five or six or something I think in the movie when she left China, you know, every time she goes back, she feels that sense of loss. A loss of something that you barely knew and you only kind of had in your head at an abstract level.
Li: Completely. One thing I find that’s really interesting also about immigrants and immigrant communities in the diaspora… If you think about New York, which is where I’m based, you have Flushing and you go to Flushing, and in a lot of ways these immigrant enclaves are so much more old school and nostalgic than the original homes that they came from. Again, there’s something I think that’s just so inherently tragic and really touching about this idea that you have all of these immigrants or in some cases refugees, where it’s even more fraught. Then they take their culture with them and the original one has kind of been erased by time.
Aditya: And the culture that immigrants bring with them is frozen in time.
Aditya: So, you know, my parents aren’t like this. I guess I’m curious if yours are. But a lot of Indian parents—a lot of immigrant parents generally—still hold very traditional 70s/80s immigrant values from the country that they came from. But when you go back to that country, you find that their peer group has evolved to be as Western as a non-immigrant Western parent. It’s really peculiar to see that the only place that some of these kinds of belief systems and old school vestiges of that culture exist are in the immigrant communities that have left.
Li: Okay, so for my own parents, I would say they’re pretty modern. But Taiwan itself is a democracy versus Communist China. So already, we’re coming from different cultures. One example I can think of a family member… So my brother-in-law, his family’s from Hong Kong and so they have a Cantonese culture and his mother does have a lot of more traditional values, I think. For example, whenever we’ll have a holiday dinner, she’ll just cook a ton of food, like an exorbitant amount of food that nobody could possibly ever eat. I think one way that my brother-in-law says that’s a pretty traditional Cantonese thing is you just overfeed. So he has more examples. I definitely will see that in some immigrant parents, where it’s just a little bit more traditional than even their home is now.
Aditya: With The Farewell actually, interestingly, it does a great thing which I think movies are starting to do historically, movies about immigrant communities, especially Asian American communities, have not done which is that Billi’s parents are super Westernized. They seemed like they’re part of the fabric of that Long Island neighborhood that they live in. You even get the sense that her uncle and cousin have become very Japanese. They’re not holding on to a culture that they’ve left, which is representative of our parents and I think so many especially modern immigrant Asian communities. It’s really interesting to see them go back and kind of almost revert — especially the dads — revert to the old 20s versions of themselves drinking themselves silly with their mom.
Li: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things that I really found special in The Farewell was their ability to paint so many different aspects of one immigrant diaspora. It’s not just one narrative where you see “Oh okay, it’s the Asians, the Chinese American experience, and it’s the kid and the parents.” It’s not just that. It’s not so narrow. You really see the full fabric of how one family who might, in their case, originate from Changchun in China. You have one family but just immediately within that original family unit, some have moved to Japan and their culture is completely different. Some have moved to the States, and I love how natural and organic it is. There’s never any dumbing down for a “Western audience.” It feels so real and I feel like that in my own life, too. I have Taiwanese family members who moved to Kentucky. Our family, originally, my dad first moved to Indiana and then my oldest sister was born in Virginia. Myself and my middle sister, we were born in Alabama. Everywhere you go, you just pick up these different kinds of cultural things with you. It’s a really very complex identity that forms. It’s not just being an immigrant or a child of immigrants. It’s really, really unique in every person’s case so I love that The Farewell just showcases that without even apologizing for it.
Aditya: And never feels the need to explain why people are the way they are. It’s just kind of given that they all will be nuanced based on what you just said — where they came from, where they went. The kind of the experiences that we assume that they’ve had based on where they’ve gone. I’m curious, what was your experience like with portrayals of Taiwanese Americans and Chinese Americans in film before this? Do you feel like there are other movies pre-The Farewell that do this well or is The Farewell kind of like a first for us in that way?
That’s a really, really good question. I think I’m so focused on newer movies because I think when Crazy Rich Asians came out in 2018 everybody in this world will remember all the marketing where people were like “Oh, it’s the first all Asian cast since Joy Luck Club, etc, etc.” Even though that marketing is pretty much just like a blanket statement, it’s pretty broad. I think what it alludes to is that there hasn’t been a ton of Asian American representation before even just like 2018. All the movies I can think of that even mentioned Taiwan as a country are newer. So it’s such an exciting time for, at least in my case, East Asian cinema and also Asian American because we have things like Never Have I Ever that just came out. It’s just a really exciting time for Asian representation. I’m really excited. I just feel like there’s a lot of new representations, especially for such a small country like Taiwan. I will say anything before that prior to 2018 or so I always just look to actual Asia for a Taiwanese representation for sure. I’ve been doing a lot of what children of immigrants do, which is trying to rediscover their roots by watching media from their original country. Especially during quarantine, I’ve just been pounding the pavement. I’ve been watching so much Taiwanese media. I’m not sure if part of it is a coping mechanism. Or if it’s like something I can really hold on to, that feels like it’s rooted in something. But I’ve been rediscovering a lot of 1980s and 1990s movies. That movement is called the “New Wave” of Taiwanese cinema. There’s just a lot of exciting directors that I’m pretty new to and it’s been exciting to rediscover.
Aditya: That’s a really interesting thing that you bring up, which is something that I guess we benefit from as Asian Americans and Asian American sons and daughters of Asian immigrants is that Taiwan and India and China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, all these places have really robust and really built out film industries. I mean, India puts out the most movies of anywhere in the world. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, all these places that really celebrated cultures of cinema and have been exporting Cannes-winning, Berlinale-winning films for decades. It’s always been really curious to me that none of that seems to permeate the American film consciousness beyond the occasional film professor or someone who’s like “Anyway going to go gravitate to foreign arthouse films.” It’s nice that stuff is kind of transitioning over. Even in Tigertail, you can kind of see the influence of Wong Kar-wai and people like that pretty heavily.
Li: Absolutely. My own personal theory on it is that a lot of the Asian immigration waves happened in the 1970s. They only allowed Asians to even move here like in the 1960s. For me, it feels like this idea of Asian Americanism is relatively new. If you go back to the 1800s, Asian Americans have been in America for centuries. But to have a really big push and a big wave of younger people who were born here, I think that is contributing to this idea that now maybe people moved here in the 70s and 80s and the children are crystallizing in an Asian American hyphenated identity. What does that look like? We’re all figuring it out because it’s actually really pretty new. It’s an exciting time now that everybody’s turning into adults and some people are choosing cinema as their medium of choice.
Aditya: Yeah, I think that you’re right that John Cho, Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn. That generation of artists and actors and filmmakers, their parents would have come here in the 60s and early 70s, which, you know, is the new wave of immigration. It’s actually funny that you bring that up because I was just watching something. But this guy, Rajiv Satyal who is an Indian American comedian was talking about Black Lives Matter in the context of the Asian American community. He made the analogy that when he transferred colleges midway through and his credits transferred but his grades did not. So he started over two years and got all A’s and that’s what Asian Americans have done in the U.S. We bypassed all the hard weed-out classes of the 1800s and early 1900s for the most part, with the obvious exception of Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act and things like that. But this new wave of people, your parents, my parents, a lot of my friends, and now we benefit from that structure being built in to your point are starting to crystallize. Finally in the media, I think the Indian American experience, you know, you mentioned Never Have I Ever, all of Aziz Ansari’s stuff, Hasan Minhaj, Kal Penn. A couple people that I know in the Indian American film community were starting to hit it off big. It seems like the next five years are going to be the time when you really start to hone in on what those now mid/late 30s or early 40s hyphenated Americans have to say about the experience. And Lulu Wang is right there in that generation. I think she’s like in her late 30s. The film is so autobiographical, which is crazy. We haven’t even talked about what I think is the most crazy part of the film, which is the fact that they keep the cancer diagnosis from Nai Nai the whole time.
Aditya: Which is the big hook. You know, it almost acts like a plot driver, but the really special stuff about the movie is everything around that. All the interactions and the way that the characters talk to each other. Is that something that you have experience with? Have you seen that secrecy around illness play out in your community in your family?
Li: I’m glad you brought up the central plot of the movie. I had a really interesting experience with this. The first time I watched it, I felt like any other American in the audience where it felt completely surreal to me that that might happen. After watching the movie the first time and then asking my parents about that where I was like “Is that a thing? Do people do that?” My parents didn’t seem that surprised. They’re like “Oh, yeah, some people do that.” It wasn’t the case in my family, where we had maybe the opposite. My parents were the ones who knew about my mom’s cancer diagnosis. I didn’t find out until after the fact. This feels more like a “baby boomer” American reaction to me where it’s like, “Oh, the kids don’t need to know” so they kind of took care of everything. First, she had the surgery. Then after the fact, I just found out on the phone. They’re like “Oh, yeah, your mom had cancer, but it’s okay. We’re this far along. We took care of that.” I was just like, “What? Wait, what happened?”
Aditya: Your parents didn’t tell you until after your mom had surgery.
Li: Yeah, yep.
Aditya: That’s crazy. You’re right. It is the opposite thing. But it speaks to a kind of larger point about Asian Americans. I know Indian Americans are like this. Just not talking about things like illness, whether it’s mental or physical. Just so casual about it and hiding it until it seems relevant to point out.
Li: Yeah, so casual. I’m not sure if that’s an Asian thing or if it’s a generational thing because I could imagine white families doing that too. Again, with baby boomers, maybe they’re like “Oh, why do they need to know they can’t do anything.” That’s how my parents felt about it. I could go on and on about the funny things that immigrant parents do or don’t care about and then their children are just so precious about so many cultural artifacts and they just don’t give a fuck most of the time.
Aditya: Yeah, it’s so true. There’s a conversation in The Farewell to that end between Billi and her mom when her dad is hilariously passed out drunk.
Li: Yeah, the red underwear.
Aditya: The red underwear. Where Billi is like, “You took me away and I didn’t get to have, like we were talking about earlier, that cultural experience.” Her mom’s like, “Why are you so sad? When my mom died, I just came back, dealt with it and came home.”
Li: Completely. I know. I’m trying to do this so much with my parents, where again, I’m being such a precious American about it where I’m like, “Oh, I don’t even know my grandparents’ names because I only know them as ah gong and ah mah.” I don’t know their real names. And if my parents are gone then my ties to Taiwan to me, it feels like they’ll just be completely severed. I’m trying to get them to add names on ancestry.com. My mom’s just moaning. She’s like, “Why do I have to do this? Who cares?” I’m trying to get stories about my relatives and my parents are just like “Who cares?” It’s pretty funny to me, actually.
Aditya: I’ve had the same kind of experience. I’ll go back and I’ll be asking… I just always ask about family members. My dad’s like, “I don’t remember every person that you have or haven’t met.” Like “If you care so much you would remember who they are.” Because it’s like, I have a dozen uncles and all these things back in India. But my parents actually lately find it really funny, I’m sure your parents do too, that I went to live in India and that I’m so interested in reclaiming this culture that I feel like I never had when they just don’t take the time to engage with the culture that they left behind. It’s almost like it skips a generation. My brother and I are like “Why don’t you teach us Hindi? Why didn’t we learn to cook the food?” And my parents are like “Why do you need to know how to do those things? You live in the U.S., it doesn’t matter.”
Li: My parents, they tried to instill some of that early on. I went to Chinese school. I grew up in the Bay Area in California. There’s a huge Chinese and Taiwanese American community there. I did have some of that structure to be learning stuff from a young age. I think I had a pretty standard experience. When I was growing up, it felt like a chore like, “I don’t want to go to Chinese school on Saturday,” things like that. But then of course, once you get into college and later, then you just really kind of appreciate it. Again, I think it’s pretty standard.
Aditya: Have you talked about The Farewell with your parents?
Li: Well, I tried to get them to watch it. I just kept pushing them to watch it because I was so excited for it to hit wide release and so everybody could watch it. Honestly, I think they watched it and we just never talked about it. They probably were just like “whatever.” Again, I feel there’s this connection with their identity that’s so strong because they just are Taiwanese. They never have to doubt that. I think that’s one of these things where it’s like the children of immigrants were just so much more longing for something that we don’t have because my identity is Taiwanese American. There isn’t an entire film industry that’s made by Taiwanese Americans. Right? For my parents they just watch Taiwanese shows, they watch Taiwanese news and all that stuff. So maybe they watched The Farewell, but they probably were just like “Okay.” Maybe it didn’t really resonate with them. But I should ask, that’s a good point. I’ll ask them “Did you ever wind up watching that?”
Aditya: Yeah, I think maybe it’s just that it resonates so much more for us because we’ve never seen our experiences with our parents on screen like that. I think generationally we’re just more likely to derive a lot of meaning from looking up generationally. I don’t think my parents watch these shows and are like “This is how I am with my kids.” Because you could watch almost any American show and be like “This is how I am with my kids” because as a family we are so Westernized and so Americanized. I grew up in Kent in the Midwest and mostly white neighborhoods and all this stuff. I had the same experience with my parents as you did with yours with The Farewell when I showed them Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s episode of Master of None dealing with parents.
Li: Yeah. Oh my god. That was like a masterpiece.
Aditya: Yeah, where the parents go to dinner. I came home for… I was in college. “Guys. I came home for Christmas break. Watch the show. It’s so good. Watch the whole thing.” We watched the parents episode. My dad was like, “Okay, that was pretty good.” We never watched another episode of the show and I was so disappointed because I was like “Don’t you see how relevant this is?” And my mom and dad are like “Well, we’re not vegetarians.” Yeah, it’s like they’re Indian I guess. But you know, that it’s not. But I did actually watch Never Have I Ever with them during quarantine because I’m in my parents house right now and that one I think we enjoyed as a family. I think there was a lot more relatability to that one. Maybe just because it’s so much more American of a show. It’s so much more centered in the American culture part of it. Just like loosely informed by India and not so much “this is an hyphenated immigrant experience,” so that’s the core of the story.
Li: Wow, that must have been interesting watching because they cover so many intergenerational themes about the daughter Devi assimilating. I’d be interested in hearing how that experience was.
Aditya: You know, my parents don’t… kind of like yours, we don’t talk super in depth about movies. Maybe it’s because you and I are so engrossed in the film scene and the film community and dissecting movies that way. We’re excited and willing and able to be like “This scene with this thing happened!” My parents are just not like that. They’re like “Yeah, it was a good movie. I really like this guy.”
Li: Like it’s entertainment. “Well, I was entertained. So it did its job.”
Aditya: Right. I think as filmmakers and writers we put so much emphasis on the importance of seeing ourselves in media and being able to say “This is our experience. Let’s talk about it really in depth.” I just don’t know if it is my parents or if it’s a generational thing or like the fact that they’re not really filmmakers. They just don’t feel that way.
Li: Yeah, especially with my dad. I appreciate that my parents and my dad support Mediaversity but I know that 100% they don’t understand it. Oh my gosh, I still remember having the Green Book conversation with my dad. He was so mad that I gave it a D on my review. He was like “It’s really well int—” Oh my god, I can’t even talk about it. But he just thought Green Book was great. He thought I was being mean. We don’t get too in depth about movies when we talk about them. He loves Bruce Willis movies, Harrison Ford. He’s so much of that generation. I’m just like “What’s the point in shitting all over his—” Like, I’m not gonna shit all over his favorite action movies. Like who cares? But we did have a good conversation about Green Book. I really tried. That was one of maybe the most in-depth conversations we’ve had about a movie. Because I was trying to show him how you can enjoy a movie and still understand that maybe it’s not great for certain representations. I’m not sure how much of it really sank in. But I’m glad we had the conversation.
Aditya: I think it took my parents a while to understand why film representation was so important to me. I think that that’s something that they never really got early on especially as I was just starting to write movies and stuff. They’re like “Why does it matter if you know if it’s Aziz Ansari versus Jake Gyllenhaal? If it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie. If you relate to being a 20-something then you relate to being a 20-something.” I was like “No, if I want to do something like this, then I know I can. Because I’ve seen people like me doing it and because they’re telling stories like mine.” I feel like The Farewell is a great example of something where not only is it an Asian lead, it’s all Asian leads in a movie set in China about the Asian experience with a very Asian American plot. Yet because Billi is so much like us, it’s still such an American movie. She has all these fears about the grant that she doesn’t get, telling her grandma the truth about that. About the cancer, whether she’s ever gonna live up to the expectations that she thinks people have for her whether or not they have them.
Li: The people who don’t really in their core understand why representations are important… It’s probably just to do with having grown up with that representation. Again, with my parents, they never felt like they weren’t on TV. They have an entire industry, all of Taiwanese media is their story. For me, I feel it’s just that privilege of when you’ve had air forever, you don’t find that you’re missing air. So maybe just for those in-betweeners like Lulu Wang and like so many exciting new filmmakers now. It’s the in-between identities where you’ve never got to fit in. You never got to have that story told. That’s when it’s important is when you’ve just like haven’t had it and then you want that air. You know?
Aditya: I think there’s an interesting thing that I noticed in The Farewell about grieving, both pre-grieving and grieving when we think about it. There’s that great scene where they put an offering on the grandfather’s grave. They have the official criers there at the other grave, but there’s my favorite line in the movie which is like, “I’ll let him smoke like, what’s the worst that could happen now?” It’s like such an interesting depiction of how we think about people who have passed on. It seems to me very of a piece with the way that they treat telling Nai Nai about her illness because “Why worry her about something that she can’t control? Why worry her about whether she may or may not die if we can just slip her the medicine quietly and let her kind of live her life as is?” It’s a much more candid accepting view of death that’s portrayed in the movie. Even though everyone’s kind of struggling with the fact that Nai Nai might die. They’re all artificially being forced to keep it together, which I think is maybe how people would react even if she did die, to the point that Billi’s mom makes.
Li: The whole concept of death in The Farewell was pretty foreign to me. I think when I was watching it for the first time especially I felt like any other like American audience member. It was all new to me. I’ve actually never done the grave sweeping or visiting graves. I have attended a funeral for my grandparents in Taiwan but I was tiny so I can’t remember. It was like I don’t know, single digit age. I feel pretty removed from the rituals of death and grieving which I mean, I feel lucky about that. But it’s interesting to see it depicted with a recent movie, Lucky Grandma. It’s a fun gangster heist movie set in New York City’s Chinatown. That movie also has really strong themes. The movie starts off with the grandmother is the protagonist and her husband died and left her with a big debt. So she needs a lot of money in order to stay financially independent because she doesn’t want to move in with her kids. In that movie, I feel like I learned a lot of things by watching movies about my own culture. Again, I think they’re Chinese so it’s not directly my culture, but you know, it’s in the same wheelhouse. There’s these scenes where she’s interacting with the shrine at home, which is where you will put in your light incense and respect your ancestors and all that stuff. In one bit of symbolism in that movie that I think maybe the everyday person might miss is that you put food as offerings and you will peel the orange and you leave it on the altar so that the dead can eat. One thing not to give a spoiler, I guess, but at the end of Lucky Grandma, she’s struggling with the death of her husband this whole time because he basically just left her with a lot of crap to deal with and she’s not happy about that. At the very end, she’s still reclaiming her independence and her power because she takes the oranges off of his shrine and eats them herself. That’s like one bit of symbolism that I thought was really cool. I just love being able to see a lot of these aspects or rituals around cultural things that I might not have thought about or known until like in The Farewell until watching it and asking my own parents “Oh, people do this.” And they’re like “Yeah, People do that, where they won’t tell the family member that they’re sick” and they just seem so nonchalant about it. And it was so shocking to me.
Aditya: You mentioned going back to Taiwan for a grandparents funeral. I think maybe for me the most affecting thing about this movie was Billi and Nai Nai’s relationship and the idea that Billi was getting a chance to do what I think so many of us never get a chance to do which is actually saying goodbye to your grandparents. Awkwafina has this really great line where we went to New York, and then I can’t remember what you call her grandfather, but he dies. And then we came back and he just wasn’t there anymore? Kind of the heartbreaking-ness of that. Did you have… not to get too deep into it. But did you have a personal or close relationship with your grandparents growing up that lived in Taiwan? Did you feel that kind of absence?
Li: Yeah. Yeah, no, I’m really glad you brought that up. Because it does remind me when she says that line, I do have a really personal experience that’s similar to hers. So on my dad’s side, my grandparents died when I was so young, I don’t really remember them at all. That was the funeral I attended as a kid. But on my mom’s side, my grandfather died. Maybe at this point it’s been maybe like, five to 10 years ago, something like that. But it was the same thing where it was just a phone call. It was like, “Oh, he passed away.” Then I remember that process of internalizing what that meant. The main thing I remember feeling was guilty because I didn’t feel more sad because I really loved him. He’s such a cool guy, my grandfather. He was like an intellectual during Taiwan’s martial law era, which was kind of scary because a lot of intellectuals were, as they do, snatched by the police and disappeared. So my grandfather has this story in the family where he was about to get snatched but he got tipped off and so he left outside his bedroom window. I really, really respect my grandfather. I remember meeting with him when I was younger and I visited Taiwan a fair bit, so I do have memories with him. But when he passed away, I just felt so guilty because I didn’t really feel very much at all and that made me sad.
Aditya: Yeah, I think I have a very similar experience, which is when my dad’s dad passed away when I was a senior in high school. So seven years ago. I found out when my mom texted me and she was like “Come home right now” from the gym or wherever I was. I came back and my dad was crying which was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. That’s how you really know that it’s real. But again, I had a very good relationship with that grandfather but it is a bit removed, because it wasn’t like we all could go to the funeral. My dad was crying and packing a bag and he was about to be gone for two weeks. He was just like booking a flight last minute to Mumbai. All these logistic things that come with having lost someone overseas along with the detachment just make it really bizarre. I remember feeling really bad for my dad especially because my grandfather had been sick. My dad I think had a trip planned in a few weeks or like a month to go see him. Anyway, because he was trying to get better, but then he passed before he could go. I know my dad felt very guilty. Part of that actually is what drove me to live in India for a few months this past year because the rest of my grandparents are still around. I got to spend a lot more time with them. Especially the grandmother whose husband passed away a few years ago. It was so weird going the first time after he passed away. Going to India and going to their house and everything was the same except for he just wasn’t around. It was so eerie doing everything the same as we would otherwise do. But he just wasn’t there. I had never really gotten a chance to be part of that experience where they moved him on. If that makes sense.
Li: Yeah. I think in my case there’s also the extra barrier — the language barrier. I didn’t understand this when I was growing up because I will speak conversational Chinese, like Mandarin, with my parents. I don’t speak Taiwanese Hokkien which is the dialect. If you look at Taiwanese history, my grandparents’ generation, they grew up learning Taiwanese Hokkien and Japanese because Japan had colonized Taiwan at that point. So my grandparents speak Taiwanese and Japanese but they don’t speak Mandarin. When I was young, I honestly just didn’t know enough about Taiwanese history yet. I didn’t understand why they didn’t know Mandarin. So that was just an added barrier ever since I was young because I can’t even talk to my grandparents. My grandfather, the one who passed away that I had talked about, he knew some English. He loved to travel, he was very well read. So we were able to communicate in kind of like this pastiche of Mandarin and English. Even some of the words were in Japanese because I studied Japanese when I was in college. It was just like a complete pastiche. But with my grandmother, and she is the last grandparent I have who’s still alive and she has Alzheimer’s, I haven’t seen her in so many years. That’s another very slow and removed relationship that I have, where we never really understood each other. At most she would be on the phone and I would say hello. She’d say something back in Taiwanese. I would just kind of wander away. I know that that’s coming, she’s very old and she has Alzheimer’s. So she will pass away at some point. That’s going to be another, like I said, a pretty removed grief that I’m going to have to process in a different way as well.
Aditya: The phone call thing is so real. I remember growing up… My grandparents actually are very fluent in English or they’re very good English speakers. But on the phone, I speak quickly in my accent and their accent. The conversations never really get to the depth that would happen if I spoke Marathi or if they could understand my accent better. Those small barriers that are actually removed when you’re in person but you’re only in person for a few weeks every year. That phone call, when I watched The Farewell I was like, “Man, Billi and her grandmother actually have real conversations on the phone and they talk and FaceTime and it’s great.” Their relationship is so touching. Part of that is probably because Billi speaks Mandarin semi-fluently, it seems. But I remember thinking after that I should have a stronger relationship with my grandparents.
Li: Hmm, yeah, I know. That’s one of those things where I would love to. I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me at this point.
Aditya: Right. Yeah.
Li: But when you bring up this idea of the barrier and that was one thing in The Farewell that really hit me hard was the barrier between Billi and her cousin Hao Hao. There’s that one scene during Hao Hao’s wedding where he’s a hot mess. He’s crying and barfing and all this sloppy stuff. But when Billi goes to comfort him and they’re just both so distraught and they’re both carrying their own guilt and sadness about Nai Nai’s cancer and just that the way that they could not talk to each other hit me so hard. It’s just so tragic, their family. They should be the only ones who understand each other the best. They just, because of something so simple as migration, they can’t talk to each other.
Aditya: Right? Because he speaks like Mandarin and Japanese and she speaks like Mandarin and English. So it’s weird. They’re probably not good enough in Mandarin to do that. But there’s such a moment. There’s such a moment in that scene where they really connect. But you know that they would, to your point, would connect even further if they just could get over that barrier. They wouldn’t have had to get to a point where they’re both blackout drunk and he was barfing for them to actually have that moment. They could have been there for each other the whole time. Sometimes I go and I feel like Billi and sometimes I go and I feel like Hao Hao’s wife?
Li: Oh, she’s so funny. She’s just a perfect comic relief with her confused face all the time.
Aditya: And just like, “Are they talking about me? I don’t know” because she doesn’t understand a thing at all. It’s so funny to see her. But you know, that speaks to something we were talking about earlier of the nuance of the characters and showing the effect of migration on not just Asian Americans, but Asians across the diaspora. How the brothers have kind of come apart and come back together despite having been thousands of miles away for, I don’t know, 25 or 30 years they say.
Li: Right. There’s just so much guilt that’s wrapped up in all of it. The movie is just so rich in the way it taps into all of these unsaid underlying things and resentments. When in the parents generation where some of them talk about Billi’s parents when they moved to America. Then the Chinese family they kind of surreptitiously killed them at the dinner table. They’re like, “Oh, well, you left.” Not in those exact words but you know, in a shady way. They’re like, “Well, you left” and then the parents are like, “Well, then why are you sending your kid to America for school?” There’s just so much really rich shade that I love that’s all so real.
Aditya: Yeah, for sure. I was on the phone with my friend from India today. And I made some comment or some joke and I think I used a Hindi word and she was just laughing at me. She’s like “These Americans using this vocab.” It’s such a divide there between people who stayed and people who have left.
Li: We’re just so sad because we try so hard. I have a Taiwanese friend and she just cracks up because I’m telling her about all these Taiwanese dramas that I’m trying to watch on the Internet. She’s like, “I’ve never heard of that. I’ve never heard of that. What is this trash you’re watching?” Then she will give me a recommendation of one that is actually being watched by Taiwanese people.
Aditya: I mean, my friends in India were more American than my American Indian friends. But the people who have come here to the point of culture being frozen from earlier, they’ll come here and they’ll watch all these Bollywood movies and be super into that whole part of it. I was in India with all these people who actually work in the industry. They work in film and Bollywood and then they were like, “Yeah, we don’t watch that. Most of those movies that you guys like aren’t good.” They do the thing that we might do to our other friends in America which is, “Watch these good indie movies. Watch these like real movies.” But we’re off watching like the big tentpole weepy dramas.
Li: You’re just trying to piece together some sad identity that doesn’t exist.
Aditya: Yeah, exactly. Cool. Well, I think that we’ve covered all the topics of The Farewell pretty well. Let’s talk a bit about the legacy of the movie. You’ve mentioned a couple movies that came right after this that also really comprehensively tackle Taiwanese American identity or Chinese American identity. You know, The Farewell obviously, it got some Oscar buzz but didn’t actually unfortunately make a dent in the Oscars, which was such a bummer. But what do you feel like the lasting legacy of The Farewell is and will continue to be going forward?
Li: Well, I think The Farewell represents to me at least the start of a movement really. It doesn’t feel like a one and done movie to me. It’s not going to be The Namesake where it came out almost 20 years ago at this point and we’ve all just been clinging to it. It’s not going to be like Joy Luck Club where it came out in 1990 and we’re just clinging to it. I think the legacy of The Farewell is just that we’re seeing an explosion of filmmakers and different perspectives. There’s so many East Asian stories coming out and I’m embracing all of it. I think you’ll see parts of this conversation about how it shouldn’t just be like one tentpole where it’s just Crazy Rich Asians and “Okay, we did it. We covered all of Asian American identity.” It’s not even frickin’ close. It’s like we covered very privileged, very, very rich, Chinese identity in Singapore which they’re basically at that point, economically, the colonizers. In just recent years—and I’ll just rattle them off—but we’ve seen Searching with John Cho, which I loved. We have The Half Of It on Netflix. We have, like we mentioned, Tigertail. There’s new movies like Lucky Grandma or like I Will Make You Mine, which is a movie that’s showing LA Asian Americans. It’s just a really exciting time. So I think what I want the legacy to be is that there shouldn’t be one movie making a legacy, it should just be so many different perspectives. We especially need to see films from different Asians, not just Chinese Americans and not just privileged light skinned East Asians. I want to see stories by the Filipino community or Vietnamese you know, there’s just so much more out there. The idea of Asian Americans is massive. We have so many different languages, so many different religions, cultures, waves of migration. I mean, it’s so different.
Aditya: Asian Americans I don’t know, are like 40% of the world’s population but get one label or Asians are gonna get one label for all. It doesn’t make any sense.
Li: Yeah. So I just want more. I want The Farewell to just be part of a movement for more and more, more and more.
Aditya: I think that it kind of is and I think that hopefully the fact that Awkwafina won the Golden Globe and Lulu Wang is getting all these job offers and being asked to speak everywhere and made money, you know, all of these things. It wasn’t just a movie that came, was acclaimed and quietly from a business perspective just faded into the night and the same way that Crazy Rich Asians did. I’ve talked about this with a lot of the movies that we’ve done on this podcast but it kind of proved that this movie can be a viable indie movie that you can sell at Sundance, you know what I mean? It didn’t flop. It did really well and honestly a lot of that has to do with Lulu’s vision and the fact that it’s a really interesting, unique story and incredibly made. But you know, people are interested in seeing the story in that community.
Li: Completely, especially as younger generations grew up. I mean, if you just look at even demographics in the United States, the younger generations are so much more diverse and the LGBTQ community is so much more fluid. I see that with a lot of younger rom-coms where… I just keep going back to The Half Of It because I watched it pretty recently but like The Half Of It and also Selah and the Spades is another movie where sexuality is just more fluid. Gen Z, they just are not thinking that hard about it which I appreciate. It’s just about individual identity. That story is always going to be interesting, because you’re getting this fresh view and you’ve never seen it before but there’s always going to be universal human emotions.
Aditya: The one other thing that I didn’t bring up earlier, but because this movie takes place almost entirely in China but it’s still such an American movie. I think they changed the foreign language designation partially as a result of The Farewell and it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Feature but I think now it’s gonna be an international feature because it’s kind of helping us think through a little bit more “What is an American and what is an American film look like?”
Li: Yeah, completely. The Oscars and these older academies, they’re just catching up. It’s nice to see them try to diversify. Ava DuVernay just got added to the board and those are all good. But I think maybe for you and myself, we were just operating in I would say the next wave of content and of creativity. I’m not looking to the Oscars for validation. That’s not who I’m holding as the arbiter of taste.
Aditya: Right, for sure. It’s fun because now we can have this whole spectrum of things from Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell to one of my favorite movies that came out in the last couple years that is centered around Asian Americans, Always Be My Maybe. I love that movie.
Li: It’s fun, but I feel like that’s the one where I’m the bad guy because I was like, “Oh, it’s just kind of a little trashy.” I love trash. I will defend trashy stuff but Always Be My Maybe is one that kind of flew under the radar for me, although I appreciate that they had a Vietnamese protagonist with Ali Wong.
Aditya: I think it’s fun that movies you know, The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians both got Oscar buzz. It’s fun that we get to have movies that don’t necessarily get that. Not every movie we make has to be an Oscar movie. Always Be My Maybe is a super fun Netflix rom-com that has infinite re-watchability and it’s not being nominated for anything but the characters are really fun. Ali Wong and Randall Park are great and it lives on the spectrum that The Farewell is in helping usher in a new generation of, “Look at all these things that an Asian movie can be.”
Li: Oh, exactly. No, you’re completely right. They shouldn’t all have to be these like slam dunk, critically acclaimed darlings. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before for another example. I loved those. Those were really well made and cute. Just again, I’m just greedy. I just want more stories, because every single one has a slightly different angle and it’s just exciting to see.
Aditya: Yeah, definitely. Okay, Li, last question that we ask every guest on the podcast. Um, how has this movie influenced you as a writer, artist, creator?
Li: Hmm. I would say that in terms of writing, I spent a lot of time working on that review. I’m really proud of the way it turned out. I don’t know that it completely changed anything but it was a step in evolution where maybe it’s one of the earlier movies that I’ve really had to pull in my own personal experience as a person, not just not just being a writer who’s writing “objectively.” So that was interesting to find ways to weave in my own history with a review while trying to make sure I’m not centering myself because that’s not the point. I’ve really enjoyed writing about movies that I have personal ties in. The Farewell is one example of that because I think it can lend a review just a little bit more heft when you can see something of the writer in it.
Aditya: Maybe that’s why all critics for so long were all white dudes because all of the movies were about white guys.
Li: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, that part’s for sure. True.
Aditya: All right Li. Thank you so much for being on. Super excited for this Mediaversity and Token Theatre partnership. Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be talking to you very, very soon.
Li: Me too. I’m really excited.
Aditya: You’ve been listening to Token Theatre, a Mediaversity podcast about representation on film. As always, you can find all episodes of Token Theatre on Spotify, Apple, Anchor and wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find them all on the Mediaversity website. Today’s guest was Li Lai, the editor-in-chief of Mediaversity. You can find her writing on the website which is mediaversityreviews.com and follow her on the website’s official Instagram @MediaversityRev. Today’s movie, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, is streaming now on Amazon Prime. My name is Aditya Joshi. That’s @aditya.mov on Instagram. Our producer is Amanda Llewellyn. And once again, as of today, we are officially part of mediaversityreviews.com. That’s mediaversityreviews.com—you can go on there and find all of our podcasts and a bunch of great reviews and articles from outstanding contributors of color, women, LGBTQ folks, it’s a great mission. It’s a great website, highly recommend it. Go on there now. But until then, thank you for listening and we’ll catch you next week where we talk about Get Out with filmmaker Ola Kalejaye.