When hell isn’t other people

‘Midsommar’ and ‘The Farewell’ depict the necessary emotional cooperation of a harmonious society.

When hell isn’t other people

‘Midsommar’ and ‘The Farewell’ depict the necessary emotional cooperation of a harmonious society.

The motivating ethos behind socialism — and its recent resurgence — is the belief that the community should share in the fruits of the labor that creates society, instead of being hoarded in the hands of an elite few. In an ideal society, a bountiful life of possibility is available for all; we already have the resources, we just need to funnel them into a universal structure capable of supporting everyone.

This is a noble idea, and reasonable when you brush aside all of the “well, what about” bad faith counterarguments, but it has one damning flaw: Communal selflessness is an alien concept to America, a country in which many people are selfish assholes, even the socialists.

Surely you’ve noticed this. The socialists don’t have a monopoly on brash unpleasantness, but brash unpleasantness is more personally disheartening coming from the people who preach peace yet practice the same thoughtless narcissism that has infected the people they’re trying to push aside. Certainly it’s not most of them, and obviously it’s no reason to stop believing in socialism, but when even the most ideologically predisposed to solidarity are looking out for themselves (which we can’t blame entirely on capitalism, late or otherwise), it should give you patience for the long — and I mean really long — road toward a truly collective liberation.

There are two movies currently in theaters that demonstrate why emotional cooperation — the endeavor to not be a selfish asshole — is a baseline necessity for fostering a harmonious community. The first is The Farewell, a film by Chinese-American director Lulu Wang. The second is Midsommar, a film director Ari Aster, who is Jewish. Both movies explore many concepts, but two connect to each other: how forgoing your individuality is a kind of responsibility, even if you think you’re too smart for it (The Farewell), and how people are never really there for us in the ways we really need, which makes the ones who are so enticing, even if they are part of a murder cult (Midsommar). They can be picked apart (The Farewell’s storytelling runs sloppy at the end, Midsommar can’t settle on a tone) but both left me longing for their vision of self-effacing kinship, though again I must stress I would not like to be murdered by a cult.

The Farewell stars Awkwafina, the breakout Crazy Rich Asians star who for the first time speaks without anything that could be controversially construed as a “blaccent”. (You have to figure it’s the first step toward a future billing as Nora “Awkwafina” Lum, and then just Nora Lum.) Here she plays Billi, a 31-year-old Chinese-American artist at a professional crossroads. Before she can agonize too long about what it means to be a semi-washed Brooklynite, tragedy strikes: Her Nai Nai (or grandmother), who lives in China, is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. To spare her the shock of realizing she’s about to die, her family decides to keep the diagnosis a secret. Instead, they plan to stage a fake wedding in the motherland, so that the entire extended clan can reunite from across the world to say their goodbyes.

Initially, Billi is dissuaded from participating in this farewell. She’s too American, her parents say, and won’t be able to hide the sadness on her face. When she flies to China anyway, this is exactly what happens upon entering the family home: Billi literally says nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing, arousing Nai Nai’s suspicions. In the background, her family exchanges worried glances. In private they might vent about how they really feel, but around Nai Nai they put on a brave front as they cheerfully lie to her. Still, when Nai Nai alludes to a future event — like Billi’s theoretical wedding, which will surely happen before long — everyone makes an expression like they’ve just seen their own death.

Several times, Billi says she’s going to tell Nai Nai about her fate; each time she is rebuked into silence. At the end of a long day, she returns to her hotel to find her uncle and father drinking and smoking on the terrace. It’s the first time the brothers have been at home in nearly 30 years; they’ve spent most of the trip binge drinking and whispering furtively in private about how to justify the con they’re pulling on their mother.

When Billi tells them she’s going to break, her uncle vehemently admonishes her. He explains that while the West is too individual, the East sees one’s life as part of a greater whole (this is seen in the trailer, though without the context that everyone here is hammered and worn out it looks like a stuffy monologue about Serious Asian Shit). Billi only wants to tell Nai Nai to alleviate her own guilt, which is no reason at all. Tired, stressed, and drunk, he concludes: “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her.” Similarly, Billi’s mother shakes off the idea of saying an explicit goodbye to Nai Nai: “Why would you want to make her go through that?”

If you’re Chinese, or studied Chinese history in school, you know about filial piety, the Confucian concept that we must respect our elders above all. In the film, this respect for Nai Nai is quickly conflated with a respect for China, a country in which nothing appears to work. The elevators in the hotel are broken; the set during a marriage photo shoot tips over; the menu for the wedding reception is downgraded from lobster to crab. Still, Nai Nai is firm at dinner when her sons discuss how they’ve left the country to find something better: “No matter what, you can’t criticize China,” she says. Not even when you’re mad at an elevator or your family’s collective silence about your grandmother’s cancer.

Passed down for thousands of years, these ideas are easily critiqued or outright rejected by a generation with the emotional vocabulary to perceive their flaws. (As in, it’s much easier to respect your elders when they aren’t abusive pieces of shit.) “Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety,” Wesley Yang wrote in a viral New York story in 2011, a sentiment I saw shared by plenty of my Asian friends. But rendered in The Farewell, filial piety — and with it, the larger concept of “community” or even “China” — isn’t a passive trait, but an active struggle to organize your feelings instead of foisting them off on other people, a conscious repression of ego as an act of love. “What do you want from me?” Billi’s mother asks, during one heated argument, in which Billi again threatens to give it all up. “To scream and cry like you?”

We see, in her pained expressions, that she is ready to do so constantly, that these emotions lurk beneath the skin. Still, she keeps it together. So does everyone. What choice do they have? They owe it to Nai Nai, for all she’s done for them. In this sense, Billi can only grow as a person once she learns how to fold her personal feelings into a greater whole, rather than defiantly insist on her individuality no matter the cost.

There’s a similar dynamic in Midsommar, which follows Dani, a young woman who suffers an immense personal tragedy and then goes to a Swedish commune called Hårga with her boyfriend and friends to take her mind off things. Dani, we realize early on, is repressed and depressed. She can’t properly express herself; she shies away from any conflict; she’s so eager to please that we watch her repeatedly succumb to the will of her oafish boyfriend Christian. Sensitive to even the slightest suggestion that she acknowledge her feelings, she frequently excuses herself to have a panic attack.

In Hårga, the community shares in everything. Guests and residents alike take their meals together at the same time, and sleep in a single, giant barn with no dividing walls. (In fact, there are no barriers throughout the village.) There is no monogamy. More stark is the nearly viral transference and replication of emotion. During a ritual, an elder attempts to jump to his death from atop a cliff, and survives the fall. As we cut to a bloody shot of his snapped femurs, the villagers writhe and howl along with him.

All of the American men on this trip get into one patch of trouble or another, but Dani slowly begins to embrace her surroundings — partly because she’s constantly under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms (a cure for depression), partly because Pelle (their Swedish friend who grew up in the commune, and invited them there) is grooming her to admit how she feels, ditch Christian, and get with someone who appreciates her. “Does he hold you?” he asks Dani. “Does he feel like home?”

Slowly, she loses the ability to sequester herself. In one climactic scene, she rushes back to the barn to have an emotional breakdown, accompanied by at least 12 other young women. When she ends up on the floor, screaming and wailing without abandon, the women take her into their hands and mimic her raw feeling, screaming and wailing along with her. For the first time in the movie, and maybe in her life, Dani has her pain recognized and taken seriously. Reflected back at her, she’s free to indulge in it without instinctively isolating herself, as she has in the past. Finally, she is accepted into a group — not just because they share in her joy (the scene before involves a hallucinogenic maypole dance in which Dani actually has a good time, for once), but because they so viscerally take on the burden of her trauma.

Midsommar made me think about how most people I know have internalized and accepted the fact that everyone is suffering in some way, whether it’s because of a bad boyfriend, an absent parent, or the president. Love in its various forms can close this gap, but there are always slight hitches. Who can ever really know the suffering of another? Who is ever there for us in the exact moment we need them, in the exact way we need them?

I’m not saying I’d want 12 people howling along with me the next time something sets me off. But I can see the appeal, murderous sex cult aside.

In my professional commitment to empathy and nuance, I made a grand mistake last summer: I underplayed how much I disliked Crazy Rich Asians, because enough people I know and respect professed genuine appreciation for its Asian-centric narrative and industry-busting existence, and I didn’t want to get in the way because I don’t like romantic comedies, which made my opinion as important as a country music writer talking about the new Chief Keef record. So what if representation meant, once again, focusing on the rich and hot; so what if Singapore was yellow-washed from queer-hating police state into sun-kissed wonderland? It was a movie. We got a Chinese version of “Yellow,” we got Michelle Yeoh in dresses. In 2018, enough people counted that as a win.

If Crazy Rich Asians offered an aspirational way to be Asian — the richness and the hotness, basically — The Farewell presents something much more emotionally recognizable. The ongoing effort to adapt one’s feelings into a shared context is something I hadn’t actively considered as an Asian trait, though of course it makes sense if you go by the stereotypes. Asians are supposed to be meek and humble, we have a hard time advocating for ourselves, our women are subservient, our men are sexless, and so on, and so forth.

It’s out of these stereotypes that the Wesley Yang essay and its offshoots emerged, a defiant brushback against expectation and duty that offered the possibility of transcending our responsibilities to each other. But what if that responsibility can be the very thing that empowers us, instead of a weakness tethering our existence to the vagaries of other people? What if, in considering what we owe each other, we can find greater maturity and purpose? This isn’t anything new, but to watch it exemplified in literally a communist society — and in Midsommar’s case, a communal society — refreshed my understanding of what’ll be emotionally required as we strive for a more egalitarian order.

A group effort only works if everyone in the group is committed, a fact that becomes difficult to scale up from a family or a commune into a country of millions. I’m not convinced that the U.S. will ever be able to accept such a demand of self-sacrifice — definitely not the billionaires, who can invest the money required to make sure everyone remains divided and angry. Forgoing your ego is much harder to do when there’s so much evidence that nobody else is doing it, at great personal cost.

But doing it — really doing it, not just talking about doing it and then just going on being a selfish asshole — is probably the only means we have of forging a better future, save for armed revolution. We don’t need to be in a murderous sex cult to get there; we don’t even need to be Asian.