If you’ve seen The Farewell, you know it’s a moving film that beautifully depicts how different cultures handle death, and the complications that come with navigating these cultural differences. The movie, which was written and directed by Lulu Wang and based on her real-life experiences, tells the story of Wang’s Chinese family trying to keep their grandmother from learning about her own terminal illness, opting to schedule a wedding as an excuse for everyone to say goodbye to their beloved matriarch. It not only received critical acclaim (and a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes), but was so well-loved by audiences that it surpassed Avengers: Endgame for the biggest per-theatre box office average this year, making it one of the highest-grossing indie flicks of the year.
Wang’s directorial debut was nominated for two Golden Globes on Monday, with the film’s lead, Awkwafina, in the running for best actress in a musical or comedy and the film itself in the Best Foreign Language Film category. And while many were celebrating Awkwafina’s well-deserved nom, others began raising questions about categorizing an American-made film centering around a Chinese-American woman in the foreign language group, a choice that Vice says “undermines the diversity of the American audience.”
So, what makes a film “foreign”?
The question about whether The Farewell constitutes a foreign film or an American film has been debated since the film’s opening, when it was already being talked about in the award-season run. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organization that runs the Golden Globes, regulates that contenders in the best drama or comedy/musical categories must feature at least 50% English dialogue, while the Oscars will not classify Wang’s debut directorial film as an international-feature contender, since it was produced in the United States.
When it comes to other foreign film nominees in January’s Golden Globes, Parasite is entirely in Korean, while Pain & Glory is entirely in Spanish and Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Les Misérables entirely in French. By comparison, The Farewell has some English, but 80% of the dialogue is in Mandarin.
“This is the Hollywood FOREIGN Press Association, a group instituted [by] the Globes in part to gain credibility for their organization. That they’re playing the same game of linguistic exclusion and dismissal that they face on occasion themselves is truly sad,” he tells FLARE. “By this definition, a Chinese film released in English would be eligible for ‘Best Motion Picture’ categories but an American film like The Farewell is relegated to a secondary honour. It doesn’t align with the increasingly global nature of the film and TV landscape and it creates a circumstance where nonwhite creatives and performers who choose to tell stories about their ancestral cultures are systematically discriminated against.”
Wang, who previously commented on the Academy’s rejection of Nigeria’s first submission for the international-film Oscar because it contained too much English, told The New York Times, these categorizations had sometimes made her feel self-conscious, saying “You go, ‘Oh no, I don’t fit in!'”
On Twitter, she remarked how confusing and conflicting these arbitrary categorizations can be, asking her followers, “What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American?”
This calls attention to the delineation of "foreign film" vs "foreign-language film". Which makes more sense? Can a "foreign film" be in OUR language (i.e. English)? Can a domestic (i.e American) film be in a foreign language? What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American? https://t.co/JqyvVeW5RQ
— Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) November 5, 2019
And even before awards season noms, the positioning of the film proved difficult for Wang. As she was pitching it to production companies, it was deemed “too Asian” for American audiences and “too Westernized” for Asian audiences.
“They were asking me on both sides, you know, well, is it for an American audience or is it for a Chinese audience? And I think American producers, studios that I initially pitched to felt like if it was an American film, it had to look like an American film, you know, and we couldn’t have subtitles. And so they wanted to change the casting. They wanted to change the language and possibly even the location. And the Chinese producers said that if the film was going to be a Chinese film marketed to a Chinese audience, then the main character could not be Billi because she was too Westernized in her perspective…” Wang told NRP’s Fresh Air podcast.
Still, to Wang, The Farewell is an American story because she, herself, is American. In a blog post for A24, the production company that distributes The Farewell in America, she wrote, “It is an AMERICAN film, challenging what it means to be American and who gets to claim Americanness.”
Classifying The Farewell as foreign perpetuates the idea of immigrants as “the other”
To imply that The Farewell, an inherently Asian-American film portraying the experience of a Chinese immigrant woman in America who is navigating the cultural differences between her homeland and the country she now lives in, is reductive and reinforces the idea that immigrants are not American. As Vice notes, Chinese immigrants now make up the third-largest foreign-born group in the United States today, and Chinese is the third most spoken language in the United States with 2.9 million people speaking it at home, based on the most recent census data from 2011.
“In an increasingly multicultural and multilingual society, the Golden Globes rules for Best Foreign Film feel outdated and problematic,” Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, tells FLARE.
While Yuen is thrilled The Farewell is getting the recognition it deserves, she feels the foreign language film category feels “misplaced.”
“The film spoke to me personally as an Asian-American and the “foreign” label conjures up the racism we regularly face as Asian-Americans,” Yuen says, who noted on Twitter that Wang’s story is “American through and through” as it was initially featured on This American Life podcast before being turned into a film. “We are constantly asked, ‘Where are you from?’ as if we are not from here. And if we speak a language other than English, we are assumed to be foreigners rather than bilingual or multilingual speakers who are just as fluent in English as another language. Just because a film is not predominantly in English should not make it foreign.”
On Twitter, many shared similar sentiments, arguing that the Asian-American experience is still an American experience.
“To say that @thefarewell is a foreign film is to not understand what it means to be Asian American. We are def American as much as we are Asian,” wrote one user.
“The Farewell is an American film. It explores how as an American you don’t quite feel at home here or where your ancestors/family are from. How meta is it that, because of an HFPA rule, it is not allowed to compete in the main categories at the Globes,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter Awards editor, Rebecca Ford.
To say that @thefarewell is a foreign film is to not understand what it means to be Asian American. We are def American as much as we are Asian. The Farewell is an Asian American film. #perpetualforeigner https://t.co/uhj1qzi1LL
— Jonathan Moua (@jnkmoua) December 4, 2019
The Farewell is an American film. It explores how as an American you don’t quite feel at home here or where your ancestors/family are from. How meta is it that, because of an HFPA rule, it is not allowed to compete in the main categories at the Globes. #TheFarewell #GoldenGlobes pic.twitter.com/d2JfSTMYn9
— Rebecca Ford (@Beccamford) December 9, 2019
— Jenny Lam (@TheJennyLam) December 9, 2019
Wow. The Farewell as Foreign Language Film? I know qualification includes % of the film spoken in English…. but context absolutely matters here when the story revolves around a Chinese AMERICAN family. https://t.co/EbfkjJ1gU4
— Mariah Carey and Sandra Oh's Publicist (@robotpotatoes) December 9, 2019
this shit makes me mad because the farewell isn’t a foreign film it’s an AMERICAN movie just because it is mainly set in china doesn’t make it any less AMERICAN.
i would say that a story about immigrants actually makes the farewell *more* american than some other contenders. https://t.co/LAqIu4xylK
— nadia🪐 (@filmsbi) December 9, 2019
It proves Hollywood still has a long way to go to embrace multiculturalism
As Paste magazine notes, “the idea that English is what makes a film have merit or be ‘American’ is proof that the Globes has a long way to go in understanding what the U.S. and the rest of the world looks like, sounds like, and wants to see onscreen.” And quite honestly, what we want to see onscreen is more diversity, more multiculturalism, and more portrayals of the immigrant experience. Is that too much to ask?