Li Lai is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mediaversity Reviews. She chats with podcast host and filmmaker Aditya Joshi about their immigrant backgrounds, the feeling of losing someone overseas, and a mutual love of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019). Highlights from the conversation are below, edited for clarity.
Aditya Joshi: I think there’s a lot of importance in how you view a film for the first time, and I think viewing The Farewell during its world premiere was the best possible environment.
Li Lai: I’m probably biased because of that, 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 … Having the actors there and getting everyone’s first reactions was also really powerful. It was a really emotional movie. I basically cried throughout the whole thing.
Aditya: If I could ask you to break down your reason for crying? 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 how would you describe the emotions that you had when you first saw the movie?
Li: I’m not even sure if I’ve completely processed it, but I can give you a few reasons about maybe why it hit me so hard. For one thing, it’s about a grandmother who has cancer. That’s already, right away, kind of a tearjerker of a central plot. Then if you add on other layers … My own mother, she had cancer and she’s had to fight it off three different times. So the theme of cancer, that really hit home.
Then you also layer on all of those immigrant themes about estrangement, this sense of nostalgia, or longing for a home that a lot of immigrants feel. There’s something tragic in the idea that most of the time, these original homes no longer even exist. Let’s say you immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. For China, it’s completely different between the ‘70s and 2020. So you leave this country that essentially doesn’t exist anymore, and the only place these immigrants can carry it is in their hearts. I think there’s something really tragic and beautiful about that. So those are just a few reasons why I think The Farewell resonated particularly hard.
Aditya: 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?
Li: I’m so focused on newer movies [for Chinese American portrayals]. When Crazy Rich Asians came out in 2018, the marketing was all like, “Oh, it’s the first all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club, etc, etc.” Even though that marketing is like a blanket statement, 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 mention Taiwan as a country are newer. So it’s such an exciting time for East Asian cinema—and also Asian American, because we have things like Never Have I Ever that just came out. It feels like there’s a lot of new representations, especially for such a small country like Taiwan.
Prior to 2018 or so, I always looked to actual Asia for Taiwanese representation. 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 been watching so much Taiwanese media. I’m not sure if part of it is a coping mechanism. Like it’s something I can really hold on to that feels rooted in something. But I’ve been rediscovering a lot of Taiwanese New Wave cinema from the ‘80s and ‘90s. There are a lot of directors that I’m pretty new to, and it’s been exciting to go through their work.
Aditya: What do you feel like the lasting legacy of The Farewell is and will continue to be going forward?
Li: The Farewell represents, to me at least, the start of a movement. It doesn’t feel like a one and done movie. It’s not going to be The Namesake where it came out like 20 years ago, and we’ve all just been clinging to it. It’s not going to be like Joy Luck Club where it came out around 1990 and we’re just clinging to it. I think the legacy of The Farewell is that we’re seeing an explosion of filmmakers and different perspectives. So many East Asian stories are coming out and I’m embracing all of it.
It shouldn’t 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 where they’re basically, economically, the colonizers. In just recent years—and I’ll rattle them off—we’ve seen Searching with John Cho, which I loved. We have The Half Of It on Netflix. We have Tigertail. There’s new movies like Lucky Grandma, or I Will Make You Mine which shows specifically 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 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 artists. There’s 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.