A fun modern classic. Download these annotations here. Much discussion will be had.
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
- The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Farewell
- Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write Dramedy
- Storyteller’s Rulebook: Specificity is Universal
- Storyteller’s Rulebook: It’s Hard to Shout Your Humility to the Hills
- Believe Care Invest: The Farewell
- Rulebook Casefile: Physical Vulnerability in The Farewell
- Straying from the Party Line: The “Passive” Protagonist of The Farewell
Saturday, September 26, 2020
- Billi can’t take it anymore and confronts her Nai Nai with the truth.
- Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but someone else unexpectedly snaps and confesses.
- Billi agrees to go along with the deception but the truth comes out accidentally.
- Nai Nai figures out something’s going and gets the truth through interrogation.
- Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but as they say good bye, Nai Nai slyly hints that she knew all along and appreciates that nobody told her.
But then we get to the actual ending: Billi agrees to go along with the deception, and leaves without the truth ever coming out, and Nai Nai never gives any real hint that she knows the truth. The ending card implies that Nai Nai never found out and survived because of that.
This totally breaks our western rules of “big lie” storytelling. Big lies must come out! Once the rock has been rolled uphill, it must be released, come barreling back down and knock everybody flat.
Wang is defiantly refusing to give us what we expect and demand. This is the same conflict Billi has with her family. Wang is saying to us, “That’s the confrontational American way of doing things and you’re sure that it’s the only way, but there’s a gentler Chinese way, and our way can work better than your way, if you just learn to go with the flow.” No confrontation, no narrative climax, no release.
But, crucially, Wang knows she is defying our expectations. She’s not just saying, “Oh, did I create a passive protagonist? Whoops, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that.” She is creating tension by pointedly defying our expectations in every scene and that tension is powering her movie.
And the scene at the climax where Billi must run across town to forge a new medical report before the end of the wedding is absolutely crucial. Suddenly, she must improvise and actively participate in the plan to do nothing. She must act to maintain her lack of action. The ending would feel like a much bigger fizzle if she had not been forced into action like that, showing that she’d switched sides definitively.
Friday, September 25, 2020
Billi is very emotionally vulnerable, but physical vulnerability barely comes into the story. But there is just one brief, odd moment that injects a hint of physical vulnerability. We see Billi come home to her New York apartment and jump for her life when she faces every New Yorker’s greatest fear: Hearing someone inside their apartment. Then she realizes the “intruder” is a bird …but there’s no window open, so how did a bird get in her apartment? She can’t figure it out. She opens a window and shoos it out, and the mystery is never solved. But later, in her Chinese hotel room, it happens again with another bird.
What does the bird represent? The symbolism is thankfully left vague. (The bird is death? Her conscience? Her fear of not fitting in? Her grandmother?) But I think the main thing it accomplishes is giving the heroine just a moment of fear and physical vulnerability, which increases our bond.
Even if your story takes place almost entirely on the emotional level, it’s good to include at least a little moment where the heroine feels physically vulnerable, just to ground things.
When I give people notes, I often worry that they’ll hit a note too hard. Sometimes I give a second set of notes on a project and I see that they have. If you read something like my checklist and think, “Oh, yeah, that does sort of feel like it’s missing, I could add a moment like that,” see if you can find the subtlest possible way to add that element. Just a hint goes a long way.
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Why Billi might be hard to identify with:
- She’s glum, and it’s never fun to watch glum. She’s ultimately fairly passive. She’s not having any success as a writer and we get no indication that she deserves any, which makes it hard to root for a character. In real life, Wang was already a fairly-successful filmmaker when this story happened. When fictionalizing the story, why reset herself to a less successful time? I think it could have worked if Billi was successful, and I think it might have been better, but Wang decided to push the underdog element to the edge of “sadsack” without quite pushing it over.
- The things her grandma are saying to her in the opening scene are things we can all identify with. We can see how it’s both exasperating but endearing to hear these things.
- She doesn’t get the fellowship she needs, her beloved grandma is dying, her family doesn’t trust her to do the right thing.
- She vows to stand up for the truth. If she went along with the lie from the beginning, we wouldn’t root for her, though we eventually decide it’s best for her to abandon her quest.
- Eat: She eats with her family in both NYC and China.
- Exercise: No.
- Economic Activity: She’s trying to make rent, but only by trying to get a fellowship. We never get a sense of how she was trying to earn it. The fact that she can’t afford this trip and is living off credit cards keeps coming up.
- Enjoy: No. We see her at a birthday party in NYC and later at a spa in China, but not enjoying herself
- Emulate: She tries to act like the white hip New Yorkers at the birthday party. She tries to act like her family members in China.
- No, she remains mired in economic concerns.
- She signs the petition because she used to have that job herself.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Perhaps my favorite novel is “A Fan’s Notes” by Fred Exley. Like this, it’s a barely-veiled autobiographical story about Exley’s personal journey to humility. He spends the book dreaming of being a great novelist, then realizes at the end that he’s not destined for greatness, but is, at heart, a fan, fated to live through the greatness of others.
It’s overwhelming, heartbreaking, and totally convincing when he comes to this realization.
…but then, of course, he turned this realization into a Great American Novel! It never made him a household name but it ensured he could spend the rest of his life teaching novel writers in Iowa until he drunk himself to death.
It’s hard to publish a story about how you learned humility, because shouting your story to the masses is a profoundly un-humble thing to do.
This paradox is perhaps even more evident with The Farewell. The movie’s tagline is “Based on an Actual Lie”, and it was promoted as the true story of how writer/director Lulu Wang was convinced to go along with her family’s decision to lie to her grandmother about her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. In the end, we cut to real footage of Wang’s grandmother and a title tells us, “Six years after he diagnosis, Nai Nai is still with us.” We are invited to consider that she’s still alive because of the lie.
But then Wang made herself world famous by turning the story into a very successful movie, and, inevitably, this led to her grandmother finding out about her diagnosis! According to the movie’s implied logic, this might kill her!
But this is something that all writers go through, even if we’re not claiming to write about our own lives: We suck up the lives and experiences of our loved ones, process them, and then trumpet them to the world. It’s been argued that you know you’ve written a great novel when you get banned from your home town (true of writers from Dante to Joyce). You’re hoping to find universal truth, but as a result you’re hoping to become rich and famous, which could not be less universal.
Will Wang be welcome at the next family gathering? Will she be blamed when Nai Nai does eventually die? Is weathering those accusations worth achieving fame? That’s a decision every semi-autobiographical writer must make for themselves.
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
- “We originally had very little hope of its ever being produced. On the surface, it seemed to have very little commercial appeal. After all, we were writing about a community of poor Russian Jews facing a pogrom - a very unlikely subject for a musical. There was, in fact, very little enthusiasm from producers about presenting the show. But we kept working on it because we loved the subject, we loved what the show was saying, and we felt very close to the material.
- “Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment…I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”
- “When I first told my parents that I was gonna make this film, they were sort of skeptical, because I showed them the script that I’d written and my dad said ‘Yeah, this is how it happened, but why does anybody want to see this, y’know?’ They were shocked that anybody was willing to give me money to put these mundane details of our lives, of our family life up on a big screen”
- “These details, they’re not boring, and they are worthwhile on a big screen, and so, I didn’t really know how people would respond, because I dove into the specificity of my family, and so to see the response at Sundance, to see people saying, ‘Oh, this is so universal, the story is so universal, these characters are so universal, this family is so universal.’ It’s so meaningful because it speaks to the fact that you can fine universality through specificity and that a story can be universal because of the specifics and not in spite of them, and so I think that my biggest dream is just that this opens doors for other filmmakers to tell their own specific stories and that people are gonna be more inviting to let filmmakers tell their own stories and do it on their own terms.”
But because the details of the scene are so oddly specific to one culture, they feel universal.
To a certain extent, both Stein and Wang said, “Fuck it, I’m not going to write about a de-racialized plucky everyman hero in an attempt to ingratiate myself with the storytelling public, I’m going to write a story that only I can tell about my own people that will probably only appeal to my own people, but it’s the story I want to tell.”
Audiences worldwide are more likely to identify with specific, odd, absurd details that we haven’t seen before than we are to identify with “universal” details that we’re already familiar with. Judaism has very little in common with Shintoism, but if you write a very Jewish story with enough specificity, many Japanese people will say, “This was written just for us.”
Monday, September 21, 2020
Let’s look at a great quietly-comedic scene, when the family visits the grave of Billi’s grandfather. As with many other scenes in the movie, we’re observing a Chinese cultural ritual that is baffling to Billi.
Meanwhile, Billi’s family have brought the grandfather’s favorite foods to put on his above-ground tomb. they fight over whether they have to open the bags of cookies and/or peel the oranges (“Yes, peel them, otherwise he can’t eat them”).
Billi’s dad then tries to lay a lit cigarette on his father’s tomb but his mother objects:
- Grandma: Don’t give him cigarettes, he quit!
- Father: He didn’t quit.
- Grandma: He did! A week before he passed, he quit.
- Father: Dad just told you he quit, but he never quit!
- Uncle: Ma, let the man smoke! He’s already dead, what else can happen? Enjoy the cigarette, dad.
Indie dramedies thrive on this sort of not-quite-laugh-out-loud scenes full of wonderfully ironic comedy, often hand-in-hand with the movie’s drama. A solemn ritual results in petty bickering. A dead man isn’t allowed to smoke. Lots of big and little lies are told, all in the name of genuine love and affection. The whole movie is right here.
Sunday, September 20, 2020
Billi is broke Chinese-American would-be writer in New York, who finds out that her beloved grandma Nai Nai back in China is dying, and, according to Chinese custom, the family has chosen not to tell her of her own illness, but the family has contrived a wedding that will give them an excuse to visit grandma one last time. Billi decides to tell grandma but gets talked out of it, eventually joining in on the deception. In the end, Nai Nai doesn’t find out and is still alive when the movie is made.
Final Score: 106 out of 122