The film is named The Farewell in English. In Chinese, it’s called 别告诉她, which would more accurately translate into English as ‘Don’t Tell Her’. My friend, in positively reviewing the movie, said: “You know an Asian girl who went to art school and then made this movie.” He was absolutely right. Bitchily, I thought, yeah I got that from the commentary that the translated English film title is probably supposed to make.
Still I couldn’t feel as ironic about seeing it as I would have liked to. I watched it twice, once on my laptop alone and stoned in my bedroom, and once in a trendy independent theatre with my mom. This was the Asian movie of the year; “like Crazy Rich Asians,” my mom said loudly in the theatre, and I told her to hush.
We were accompanied in the middle of downtown Vancouver by middle-aged white women with heavy eyeglass frames and sons with Asian girlfriends. I studied them and knew that they were thinking, “That girl must feel more affinity toward me than toward her own mother.” They were really thinking that. Why would I lie to you (我会骗你么)? I swear, white people think things like that.
During the film, these aforementioned ones dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs. My mom straight up blew snot into her scarf. After the movie, my mom’s nose was so red and her eyes so runny. In the line for the ladies’ room (as it were), I felt embarrassed by her for the first time in a long time. Still, the queue of ladies only looked at me with…compassion?
“Do you think all those people really understood the movie?”, my mom asked me as she hurried us out of the theatre later, even more embarrassed than I was.
The almost excruciating tenderness I really feel toward her began to unfold in its familiar way as soon as we reached the darkness of the evening outside. “Definitely not,” I said, trying to stand up for her dignity somehow, some minutes too late.
In the film, Billi’s aunt is middle class and enjoys the spa as both a lifestyle and a hobby. The excessiveness of Chinese mainland new money is characterized through her son Bao, his fatness and dependence upon technology apparently presented as evidence of such. Billi is dragged to the spa along with her dad and gets cupped real hard. Later, she looks at her back in a mirror and all the marks are a deep purple. In the theatre we sat in, my mom audibly gasped. I demonically chuckled at the possibility that the moment inspires a think-piece on microaggressions.
Trust me, this bitch wasn’t grossed out by the cupping marks, she was genuinely worried as the colouring demonstrated that Billi has way too many bad vibes in her body.
Not all those people really understood the movie, mom. Some moments garnered disproportionately rambunctious laughs: when Billi’s uncle offers his father’s grave a lit cigarette, when Billi’s grandmother comments on how much she loves Billi’s round little ass.
Other times, I found a single detail so hilarious and laughed loudly, often the only voice heard in the theatre. I knew why this was: the people who found this funny wouldn’t have laughed this loud, and the people who laughed like this did not find it funny. Culturally, who the hell was I, right? Billi’s great-aunt’s cheaply bejewelled cap, the hired mourners’ wails at the family plot, the ruthlessly unsympathetic audience in front of Billi’s uncle’s wedding speech breakdown…these are all the authentically hilarious moments, why would I lie to you?
The part that my mom cried the most at was the part that I cried the most at too. Billi and grandma/奶奶 are hugging, pulling away while 奶奶 says something like, “Oh, stop torturing me and go already.” When I ask shit like, “Why is my grandma such a sad drama queen?”, my mom’s only response is that I’m being disrespectful. In short, culturally, this is how grandmothers can get off. In longer length, my grandma’s dad was a landlord and had gotten cancelled. “He was just like a small manager,” my mom said verbatim, extremely quietly.
In the film, Billi is rushed into the cab and we see through her eyes her 奶奶 shrinking within sight—so when will she disappear completely? So anyway, I totally lose it during this scene, as does my mom.
My maternal grandfather would die two days later. “He’s not suffering anymore,” my mom said to me weeping. “Was his body in a lot of pain?”, I think I responded, to which she wailed that his entire life was suffering. My mom is a sad drama queen too.
Image courtesy of Viola Chen
Viola Chen is a cultural thinker and support worker currently based in Montreal.