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    Chinese Audiences Debate Chinese-ness of ‘The Farewell’

    Movie about Chinese culture, set in China, wows American audiences but flops in mainland premiere.
    Jan 13, 2020#TV & film

    The award-winning, record-breaking dramedy “The Farewell” raked in a lackluster 1.98 million yuan ($350,700) at the box office in its opening weekend on the Chinese mainland — less than a quarter of the 8.6 million yuan “Crazy Rich Asians,” another Hollywood film about a Chinese family, made in the country over its own weekend premiere just over a year ago.

    The more recent film’s China debut comes six months after its U.S. release, and less than a week after lead actor Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win the award in any category.

    “The Farewell” — or “Don’t Tell Her,” as it’s called in Chinese — follows a Chinese-American writer, Billi, as she returns to her family’s ancestral home, the northeastern Rust Belt city of Changchun, to visit her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with cancer.

    The grandmother, or Nai Nai, as she’s affectionately called in the film, believes the cancer is benign: The film hinges on the fact that her family have opted not to tell the elderly woman that her illness is terminal, convinced that doing so would cause her unnecessary emotional stress.

    After a quiet opening weekend at just four theaters in the U.S. in July, the $3 million production received glowing reviews — including 98% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes — and was eventually picked up by nearly 900 theaters. To date, it has raked in $17.7 million at the U.S. box office.

    But “The Farewell” seems unlikely to achieve the same success in China. The film was originally slated to be released Nov. 22 but was delayed just two days beforehand — apparently to prevent it from being lost in an avalanche of hype surrounding the surefire success of Disney’s “Frozen 2,” which was opening in China the same weekend.

    By the time “The Farewell” finally said hello to China last Friday, many people in the country had already seen it abroad or online, as evidenced by the more than 25,000 reviews the film had on the Chinese review site Douban before its mainland premiere. And when Friday finally rolled around, “The Farewell” accounted for just 1.1% of all domestic screenings.

    The Chinese reviews for “The Farewell” have been largely positive, with the film earning a respectable 7.3 out of 10 on Douban and 8.5 out of 10 on ticketing platform Maoyan. Reviewers have praised the film’s realism, dialogue, and acting — especially the stellar performance by Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai — and many netizens have opined that the film seems far more relatable to them than the glitzy, high-flying world of 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”

    Douban commenters have also called “The Farewell” a bona fide tear-jerker, with some admitting they felt compelled to call their grandparents as soon as they had finished watching.

    “Lots of scenes in the film show moments that really happen in northern Chinese families. This is what Asian families are like — not ‘Crazy Rich Asians’,” read a top review on Douban. “Chinese viewers cry as they watch, while American viewers laugh at the cultural differences.”

    The U.S. production has copped its share of negative reviews from Chinese audiences, too. Many online critics have said the film feels too American, relies heavily on cultural tropes and stereotypes, and “others,” or exotifies, the weighty issues it attempts to address. “If you look down on Chinese people’s culture so much, then don’t use Chinese as a money-making tool, OK?” commented one Douban user. “If Chinese have a low (social) position, it’s because you only know how to trample them to please white people.”

    Apart from depictions of Chinese culture that some perceive as unflattering, however, most of the film-related discussion revolved around Awkwafina’s Golden Globe win.

    The historic moment was heralded by Chinese entertainment media as a victory for Asian representation in Hollywood, but many netizens felt that the final decision had come down to political correctness, and were angry that a person they regarded as just another “ugly” actor — or one who may not fit the mold of a classical Chinese beauty — being embraced by the West as a representative of China.

    “Americans themselves like faces with shape and large eyes— so how come when it comes to representing Asians, (we) end up with narrow eyes and flat faces?” read the top comment below an entertainment industry commentator’s lengthy post on microblogging platform Weibo. “Don’t talk to me about ‘diverse beauty standards.’ This is discrimination, plain and simple.”

    Under a Weibo thread about Awkwafina’s Golden Globe win, however, many Chinese netizens defended the actor against her haters, arguing that she has been unfairly vilified by domestic media. 

    “People are out there in Europe and America making noise and speaking out for Asian equality, while in China clickbait keyboard warriors can just say she looks very ‘insulting to China’,” wrote one Weibo user. “First, take a good look at yourself: How large and beautiful are your eyes?”

    Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed a quote about Asian beauty standards to an entertainment industry commentator. The quote was the most upvoted comment below the commentator’s post.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A still from the award-winning film “The Farewell,” which premiered on the Chinese mainland Jan. 10. From Douban)