Can a Film Be a Love Letter to a Country?

New movies from the writer-directors Lulu Wang and Diana Peralta explore complex questions about national belonging and communal responsibility.

The new film 'De Lo Mio' challenges its protagonists’ relationship to their motherland, which has perhaps been more one-sided than they might at first admit. (Courtesy of 'De Lo Mio')

For Lulu Wang, the Chinese American writer-director of the poignant family drama The Farewell, returning to the country of her birth has often felt akin to time travel. “Whenever I would go back to Changchun in the past, I would be relegated to a child,” she told my colleague Shirley Li ahead of the film’s release in New York and Los Angeles. “You regress … This time, going back to shoot the movie, I went back as an adult.”

The Farewell tells the story of a young Chinese American woman named Billi (played with remarkable depth by Awkwafina). An avatar of Wang herself, Billi takes an impromptu trip to China after learning that her nai nai, or paternal grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer—and that the extended family is keeping her ailing health a secret. The Farewell was filmed largely in Changchun, and Wang approaches the setting with a warm eye: The movie incorporates numerous panoramic shots of the city, the effect at once absorbing and disorienting.

In these scenes, the camera functions as a proxy for Billi, who navigates with a nebulous familiarity the homeland she left at age 6. For viewers who are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, The Farewell will likely offer several recognizable moments—among them, the sense of awe evoked by any visible changes to infrastructure “back home”; the frustration of pushing through linguistic barriers; and most guttingly, the desperate attempts to mend strained relationships by quickly catching up on years’ worth of mundane life updates.

In its depiction of Billi’s attempts to reconnect with her family—chiefly Nai Nai—amid a slow-unfolding grief, The Farewell raises complex questions about the elasticity of national belonging and the familial responsibilities that transcend distance. One heated dinner scene, for example, finds a relative accusing Billi’s dad (played by Tzi Ma) and her uncle (Jiang Yongbo) of neglecting their duties as sons while living in the United States and Japan, respectively: “Have you considered your mother growing old without her kids around?” she asks, the brothers’ guilt hanging in the air long afterward. The Farewell weaves these small indictments throughout its run, at turns implicating Billi herself in the abandonment of her family back home.

For viewers who are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, The Farewell will likely offer several recognizable moments. (Casi Moss / A24)

The Farewell is remarkably deft in its assessment of what immigrants and people of diaspora owe those they leave behind, but it’s not alone in this sharp analysis. De Lo Mio, a new film from the debut writer-director Diana Peralta, aches and questions in similar ways. It premiered last month as the closing feature of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual BAMcinemaFest, and will show next month at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and HBO’s New York Latino Film Festival. Like The Farewell, Peralta’s feature is a story that closely mirrors the experiences of its director. Studded with references to “Nueva York” and laced with bachata rhythms, De Lo Mio follows two Dominican American sisters raised in New York as they travel back to the Dominican Republic to clean out their father’s childhood home after his death. Upon their arrival in Santiago, Rita (played by Sasha Merci) and Carolina (Darlene Demorizi) are reunited with their semi-estranged brother, Dante (Héctor Aníbal). The process of preparing their family’s house for sale reveals rifts in the siblings’ relationships, but it also underscores the sisters’ distance from the country they say they love.

Implicit in both films is a delicate accusation: How much can your country mean to you if you seldom visit? That personal indictment is both weighty and complicated—certainly, not everyone who’s emigrated from their homeland has access to the resources (financial and legal chief among them) necessary to return. In both films, the protagonists speak a mixture of English and their family’s native tongue. But whereas Wang’s Billi had maintained a relationship with Nai Nai by phone even prior to her sojourn to China, Peralta’s Rita and Carolina seem to have only occasionally kept in touch with their Dominican Republic–based relatives before their father’s death. In both cases, though, the films suggest that forgetting one’s country and forgetting one’s family are mutually reinforcing transgressions. That grief (preemptive or otherwise) is a through line in both movies only underscores the high stakes of these interpersonal separations.

De Lo Mio more explicitly challenges its protagonists’ relationship to their motherland, which has perhaps been overly romantic, or more one-sided than they might first admit. Rita and Carolina marvel at the lush Dominican landscape; they indulge in nostalgia about childhood summers spent at their family’s home with their father. The camera mirrors their sentimentality: De Lo Mio is awash in natural light, and multiple scenes create a kind of onscreen stillness by panning across the wildlife that surrounds the home. (The house that serves as the film’s primary location and its biggest set piece belonged to the Peraltas’ late grandmother.) When Rita and Carolina learn that Dante plans to sell the house to buyers intending to demolish it, they’re aghast at the thought of losing the place that has anchored their trips—their vacations—back home. “Of course I have feelings,” Dante responds in Spanish when they suggest he’s heartless. “But I also have debts.”

The tension between homegrown pragmatism and privileged idealism is one that pulses throughout De Lo Mio (and, to a lesser extent, The Farewell). Rita and Carolina clearly mean well, but their time spent living in the United States has necessarily warped their conceptions of life on the island. Peralta addresses these gaps in their knowledge largely through their conversations with Dante, who is at once a frustrating and sympathetic character. It’s an impressive line to walk, and the film manages to reveal Rita and Carolina’s blind spots while slowly deepening their relationship to Dante. In one haunting scene, he decries their decision to parachute in at the last minute: “Why didn’t you come sooner? Why didn’t you come sooner then? Where were you guys? Back home in your little country, right?” he yells at Rita in Spanish. “Where were you all this time? Where were you guys when your grandmother was right there dying? Your grandma, the one you supposedly love so much!”

It’s jarring to witness Dante so viscerally question his sisters’ devotion to the family they’ve left behind, but the confrontation leads to a kind of catharsis—and tangible changes on their part. In The Farewell, Billi has a quieter revelation that pulls her away from the American nonchalance her grandmother once chided her for. Both films begin with grief and the ruptures it causes, but together they offer a hopeful resolution: The distance imposed by immigration can often feel insurmountable, but family bonds can still be fortified.