The Farewell (2019)

Directed by Lulu Wang

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In The Farewell a family gathers in China to say goodbye to the family matriarch, recently diagnosed with lung cancer.  Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) doesn’t know she is dying, and the family would like to keep it that way, the thought being that it’s not the cancer that kills you so much as the fear.

We see this through the eyes of Nai Nai’s granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), who is rather disturbed by the lie.  Her family doesn’t think to invite Billi, in fact, for fear that she will expose the lie not because she means to undermine them but because she can’t conceal her grief.

The dichotomy here is between west and east, between the individual and the whole.  As Billi’s uncle will tell her, “You think one’s life belongs to oneself, but that’s the difference between the East and the West.  In the East a person’s life is part of a whole.”  

The message, at least in that moment, is perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but it’s the summation of the film as a whole.  Billi, westernized since she and her parents moved to America when she was six, struggles to understand the thought process of her family back home.  She must grapple with this push and pull of tradition, family and culture, straddling the edges of an expanding canyon.

It’s a thoughtful presentation of both sides to this “argument,” and I think the film deserves credit for not shying away from the eastern perspective.  It could be so easy for this to build to an almost inevitable moment in which Billi spills the beans to her grandmother or someone else lets it slip too.  In fact there’s one moment in which Billi rushes to prevent a family friend from possibly revealing the truth of her grandmother’s diagnosis only to realize that this friend is unable to read and thus unable to knock the plan off course.

So much of the film deals with some amount of culture shock, some for Billi but considering this is still home for her, much of it is for the audience.  The way of grief and memorializing here is a challenge to the audience because we are Billi but, in my case at least, without her connection to China as home.  The “lie” is just a lie, and there’s an expectation that it is some sort of wrong to be righted in the end.

But that’s not how this works, and I think the film works so well, beyond being genuinely funny and moving, because it further acquaints us not just with another way of living but another way of thinking and feeling.  In fact the rhythms and structure of the film add to this.

Beyond the initial premise The Farewell is rather plotless.  The family gathers in China, with Billi surprising them when she shows up, they plan a wedding for Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend of three months, and then they say their goodbyes before heading home.  It’s the almost meditative, observational qualities of a film you don’t often get in America.  It’s the calmness of a Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda or Richard Linklater film (okay yes he’s American).  We observe and then let go, just as Billi does.

Alongside Billi we experience this family, together for the first time in two decades, their routines and rituals.  In some moments Billi regards the things which are foreign to her, like the casual hotel poker game of older smoking men and their paid for escorts.  The camera lingers on what she sees and her reaction to this.  The film similarly lingers on moments involving ghostly smoke apparitions, birds and the like.

The more I think about it this film in style and structure really is a blend of east and west.  The story is calm and meditative, kind and distant, but this is an Americanized version of such a thing, with more music thrown in, moments of humor which might at times feel overly playful (and possibly insincere) just to balance out the more grim subtext of the film as a whole and a sudden ending which, to me, felt tacked on, calling back to an earlier moment just to provide a sense of artificial closure.

Now I don’t think it’s necessarily artificial, but the editing of the film felt very American, using music, juxtaposition and whatnot to dictate how we should feel.  Underneath that the heart of the story feels very eastern.  The only times the camera drifts west is when it becomes overly stylized, introducing dramatic slow motion shots of the marching family (like in a Beyonce video) or the swoosh pans in a dinner table drinking game.  My favorite moments of the film are shot from afar, making literal Billi’s Uncle’s line about the individual succumbing to the whole.

In a shot like this early on the family hurries through the rain to find their way to the hospital.  They get lost going back and forth through a gate, and their umbrellas shield them from us so that they become just little balls of color, moving comically through the landscape even as they are overcome with anxiety and grief.

Up Next: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Stuber (2019), Silent Rage (1982)

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