Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Straying from the Party Line: The “Passive” Protagonist of The Farewell

There were many Western ways for The Farewell to end: 
  • 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.
In each case, this would happen around the ¾ point, and the fallout from the lie coming out would supply the drama for the final quarter of the film. I was fairly sure that one of these would happen. But I thought of one more possibility:
  • 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.
As we moved along, I started to think that was the most likely.

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

Rulebook Casefile: Physical Vulnerability in The Farewell

I say in my checklist that characters should be both emotionally and physically vulnerable, but is that true in The Farewell

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

Believe Care Invest: The Farewell

Alright, damn you people, I’ve gone back to BCI from CCC, but I reserve the right to re-revert at any time! 

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.
Five Es
  • 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.
Rise above
  • No, she remains mired in economic concerns.
High five a black guy
  • No.
  • She signs the petition because she used to have that job herself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Storyteller’s Rulebook: It’s Hard to Shout Your Humility to the Hills

So let’s talk about a fundamental problem with stories like The Farewell

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

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Specificity is Universal

Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” says of its creation
  • “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.
He talks about going to the first Japanese production:
  • “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.’”
Likewise, in the DVD documentary, Anna Wang talks about The Farewell:
  • “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”
She goes on to say:
  • “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.”
Specificity is universal. The reason it works is because of scenes like the one I discussed yesterday, where the family winds up having a comedy of errors at the grandfather’s grave. The whole point of the scene is that this would only ever happen in China, where they have very particular graveside traditions that seem absurd to outsiders, even to a granddaughter who was born there but moved away young.

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

Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write Dramedy

Dramedy is a tricky genre. We’ve looked at Sideways, which has some broadly comedic scenes, some entirely dramatic scenes, and lots of wry scenes in between, but The Farewell represents a different sort of quiet dramedy that constrains itself into a narrower range, never really allowing us to laugh out loud, but gently teasing out the inherent ironic humor of its situations throughout. 

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. 

 We have just heard the mom complain about how China has professional criers at funerals, then we cut to an ostentatious crier at a funeral, so we’re invited to assume this is a professional another family has hired.

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.
Eventually, they just start eating the food themselves and having a good time. Then the scene gets a bit more serious as grandma asks, “Why’d you have to leave us so early?” The answer, as we learned elsewhere in the movie, is that he had cancer and she didn’t tell her, driving home the gravity of Billi’s decision. 

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

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Farewell

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. 

PART #1: CONCEPT 15/19

The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?

Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?

A young Chinese-American woman returns to China to see her dying grandma one last time, but nobody will let her tell her grandma the truth.

Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?

Lying for an honorable reason, withholding aggressive medical care with the idea that it would do more harm than good because of the fear it would cause

Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?

Wang says that the more specific she made it to her culture the more universal it become.  We’ve all told lies to family to make them feel better, but not usually with life or death stakes.

Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?

Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?

Yes, there’s very little plot.

Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?

Yes, Billi

Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 

Yes, we see little of her life outside this problem.

Does the story present a unique relationship?

Yes, a girl and her grandmother when the girl is hiding from the grandmother that she’s dying.

Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?

Everyone in the film is opposed to Billi’s wish to tell her grandma.

Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?

It represents her greatest fear: That’s she’s too American for China but too Chinese for America.

Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?

On the inside, she’s having a volatile reaction, but she suppresses it all the way through the end of the movie, which is very non-western. 

Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?

Lying is easy enough to do, but it’s hard to want to do.  (In the end, it becomes hard to do as well when she must go to great lengths to fake the medical report.) 

In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?

Not at all.  She’s the only one who can stop this, but she chooses not to. And ultimately submitting to the will of the group seems to work.

Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?

No, she chooses not to transform the situation at all, but it does transform her.

The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?

Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?

Just slightly.  It intentionally doesn’t deliver the drama it promises because the dam never breaks and the truth never comes out, but along the way it makes us laugh and cry. 

Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?

Not really.

Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?

Not really.  The crazy-wedding-seated-dance-game thing is great trailer-fodder though. 

Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?

Well, the big surprise is that the dam never breaks.

Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?


Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?



Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?

Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)

On the phone with her grandma, she lies that she’s wearing a hat to stay warm enough.  Her grandma then warns her that in New York criminals will rip your earrings right out of your ears.  She signs a petition on the street to save marine life just out of pity for the woman asking for signatures, then has a friendly conversation about how she used to have that job, and admits she quit before she could be fired.

Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?

Yes, we never learn much backstory

Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?

Her family has great hopes for her.

Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?

She’s hiding the fact that she didn’t get a Guggenheim fellowship and feels like a failure.

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?

Sort of, she sounds like a teenager, showing her arrested development.  “Are you always going to live like this?”  “Poor and sexy, I hope so.”  But that amount of personality is atypical.  For the most part, she has little verbal personality.   

Does the hero have a default personality trait?

Glum, which is a very alienating trait

Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Appeal to Western ethical reasoning.  Tell a lot of lies while insisting others tell the truth.

Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?

She loves her grandma and wants to tell her the truth, but ultimately chooses not to.

Care: Do we feel for the hero?

Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?

 I don’t understand, she doesn’t have a lot of time left, she should know, right?”

Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?

Tell her grandma the truth

Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?

She’s worried she’s going nowhere, she’s worried that she’s too Chinese for America and too American for China.

Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?

Emotionally very much so.  The closest she comes to physical vulnerability is when she comes back to her New York apartment and finds a bird inside, despite the fact that no windows are open.  Later, the same thing happens in her China hotel room.

Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)

Ultimately the movie flips in the final title card, revealing that her flaw was her self-centered, western urge to tell the truth (which we had perceived to be a strength)

Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?

…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?

… and that her strength was her willingness to knuckle under (which we had perceived to be a flaw)

Is the hero curious?

Right away, she’s trying to figure out where her Nai Nai really is.  She keeps demanding to know why they’re doing this, trying to understand Chinese logic. 

Is the hero generally resourceful?

Not really, but when she finally chooses to act, to fake the medical report, she does manage to summon the resources to do it.

Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?

Truth is better than lies, action is better than inaction, the American way is better than the Chinese way.

Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?

No one around her wants to tell the truth.

…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?

Many times

Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?

Sort of, she’s walking through the streets talking on the cell phone with her grandma.

Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?

Just a bit, in that she chooses to fly to China against their wishes.

Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?

Not really.  I mean, you could say she uses her writing skills to fake the document, but not really.

PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21

1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?

When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?

She does not feel at home in America and misses her grandma.

Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?

She gets a letter denying her a fellowship, confirming her fear that she’s not making it on her own. 

Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?

She finds out that she can to visit China and her grandma, but only on the condition that her hide her grandma’s cancer.

Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?

Her parents try to convince her to not to come, sure that she can’t lie convincingly. 

Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?

She buys her own ticket and surprises everybody.

2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?

Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?

Well, it’s not really unforeseen, but her grandma immediately asks her what’s wrong.  Her grandma tries to teach her a Chinese exercise routine but she resists.  

Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?

She puts on a fake smile and tries to keep quiet.

Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?

Not really. She tries to relax at a spa, but without much success.

Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?

Grandma gets sicker and goes to the hospital.

3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?

Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?

She confronts Grandma’s doctor and tries to convince the family to tell her, but the doctor and her family talk her out of it.  

Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?

Her father switches to her side, but is still outvoted.  She feels betrayed by Nai Nai herself, when Nai-Nai’s sister tells her that Nai Nai lied to her husband about his cancer.

Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?

Sort of.  She confronts her uncle, convinced he’s the ringleader. 

Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?

Her uncle convinces her she would have to stay in China to take care of Nai Nai, and she decides to do so…

Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?

…but her mother quickly disabuses her of that notion.  (She can’t cook, clean, or write Chinese.)

4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?

Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?

You would think she would say something subtly showing that she’s coming around during her wedding speech, but her speech is unmemorable.  (The closest thing she gets to a corrected statement of philosophy is her final line of the movie where she comes home and shouts “Ha!” using her grandma’s exercise mantra.)

After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?

She happily joins in a drinking game with her family, no longer feeling disconnected from them.

Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?

Yes, when…

Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?

She finds out that her grandma has sent the maid for her test results and goes running out to intercept the maid.  She doctors the results to further the deception.

Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?

Very much not.  They all gather to watch the grandma read the faked results, but nobody confronts anybody.

Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?

She finally tells her Nai Nai one piece of truth, that she didn’t get the fellowship.  They bond as much as they can without the truth of the diagnosis coming out.

Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)

She returns home to New York, feels overwhelmed, then stops on the street and shouts “Ha!”, which she refused to do before.  We then find out that the grandma is still alive six years later.

PART #4: SCENEWORK 15/20 (Finding out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents)

The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?

Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?

She thinks that she’ll find out her dad is sick or drunk. 

Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?

Not really.  It starts at the beginning.

Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?

She’s just said to her mom, “Mom, if you’re going to give me shit every time I come home, I’m not coming home anymore,” so she feels intimidated there.

Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?

The dad doesn’t want to discuss it.

Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?


Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?


The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?

Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?


Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?

We identify with Billi and want her to find out the truth.

Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?


Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?

Surface: Let me go visit grandma.  Suppressed: I’m not too American for China, or if I am, it’s because American values are better. 

Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?

No, it’s all plainly stated.

Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?

The parents pretend not to be too upset.

Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?

Her mom references her dad’s joke, which Billi laughed at before, to mock Billi’s position, which Billi has no response to. 

Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?

There’s reblocking, but nobody touches each other.

Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?


The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?

As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?

Not yet.  They convince her not to go, but not for long. 

Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?

She finds out the truth but humiliates herself in the process, admitting to her powerlessness.

Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?

Answered: What’s going on?  Asked: What will Billi do about it?

Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?

Ends on: ”If you go now, she will find out right away.”  Is that true?

Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)

We wonder if Billi will be able to keep the secret.


Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?

Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?


Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?

Yes, very much.  Both Nai Nai and Billi have a very limited perspective, in different ways.

Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?

It’s about learning to tell the difference.

Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?

Very much so.

Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?


Do the characters interrupt each other often?


Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?

Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?

The two cultures are contrasted in their language.

Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?

Nai Nai: Metaphor family: chirpy-but-hectoring grandma, personality trait: wants things her way but also wants to keep things pleasant, argument strategy: tell white lies to get what she wants.

Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?

Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?


Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?

Just a bit.

Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?


Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?


Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?

They’re all three-dimensional.  To a certain extent, the mom is head, the father is gut and Billi is heart, but they’re ultimately more complex than that.

Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?

Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?

Her Nai Nai perceptively sees her problems, and her uncle sees her flaws.  

Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?

There’s no exposition.

Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

Sort of with her uncle. 

Part #6: Tone 10/10

Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?

Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)


Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?

Big-lie family gathering

Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

It majorly defies expectations.  We’re totally expecting the lies to come out.  But it satisfies a few as well, with heartfelt scenes and laughs.

Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?

Unfortunately, like too many indie films, it has a blue filter on it, literally and figuratively.  I guess you could say the mood is “indie.”  Mood is the movie’s biggest flaw.  

Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?

Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?

Well, we’re primed for the lie to come out, and, whether or not it does, for her to die, but neither comes.  But the movie is structured around the trip and does end when the trip ends.

Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?

We begin with an intercut phone call between Nai Nai and Billi, establishing the worlds.  The first shot is a picture of a beautiful Chinese landscape, but then we realize it’s just a picture in a hospital, establishing the idea of lies and masking illness.

Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?

Yes, some of the family members seem to have found success either by leaving or staying in China and others seem to have failed by doing one or the other, so lots of possible fates.

Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?

The doctor says that they lied to his mother about her cancer but she died shortly thereafter.

Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?

She switches to joining in the deception, she switches to telling the truth about her fellowship.

Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Yes, we see that the lie doesn’t come out, Billi doesn’t tell the truth, and Nai Nai doesn’t die.

PART 7: THEME 13/14

Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?

Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?

Is it better (and healthier) to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth?

Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?

”She should know, right?”

Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?

She keeps being put in moral dilemmas in China.

Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?

Does the story reflect the way the world works?

Yes, it’s a true story.

Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?

Very much so, it’s based on a true story of the filmmaker’s visit to China and shows many authentic things she noticed.  (I mean, it certainly never comes up that this is a dictatorship, and they probably wouldn’t have been able to shoot there if they had mentioned that, but it still has a lot to say about the nature of modern China without mentioning that very big elephant in the room)

Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?

Hints of it for both countries.

Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?

Well, not really, because dictatorship is never mentioned. 

Do all of the actions have real consequences?

Yes, but not what we expect.  Inaction ends up with positive consequences.

Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?

Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?

There are dozens of little lies that both Nai Nai and Billi tell that are counterpointed with the big lie that the other family members are telling Nai Nai.

Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?

When she chooses to join the lie, it’s in the form of an object she has to forge with difficulty.

Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?

Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?

Happy lie is seemingly better, but we’re not sure of that.

Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?

She doesn’t achieve her original goal of telling the truth and decides it was better not to.

In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?

It’s very untidy.  We never find out if Billi finds a way to make it in NYC, etc.

Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?


Final Score: 106 out of 122