A Passable “Farewell”

A Passable “Farewell” August 4, 2019

Cranky comedic traveler Karl Pilkington once described China’s most famous structure as “the All Right Wall of China.”  Well, with The Farewell, we have the all right journey to China.

With her second feature, in this case based on actual events in her own family, writer/director Lulu Wang seems only partway to finding a personal style that adds depth to her films.  Some of her visual choices in The Farewell are real headscratchers:  why that slow zoom on Grandma’s apartment?  Why that slo-mo sequence of the extended family walking down an urban street?

Also, rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina lacks the thespian chops to carry this film.  Sure, she does glum very well, but her performance is missing the persuasive subtlety a top tier drama demands.

Awkwafina (center), taking that slo-mo stroll

However, The Farewell has its strengths (and as an American example of adding Asian diversity to its movie offerings, this is light years better than last year’s overrated Crazy Rich Asians).  Wang’s use of music – plucky chamber works, plus a well-chosen Leonard Cohen song, that, hallelujah, isn’t “Hallelujah” – judiciously brackets scenes in a manner that doesn’t drown out the main drama.

More importantly, her film feels like a plausible depiction of upper middle class life in contemporary urban China.  And the culture clash of eastern and western values is handled with a light touch, so that the moral judgments are delivered tenderly.

The Farewell’s opening nicely foreshadows the central conflict to come.  Our lead, Billi (Awkwafina), takes a cellphone call from her grandmother (a charming Shuzhen Zhao, in her first film role).  In their brief exchange, both Billi and her Nai Nai tell white lies.  Yes, Billi is wearing a hat as she traverses chilly NYC (she isn’t).  Nai Nai is at her sister’s (she’s at the hospital, awaiting a CT scan).

These little fibs quickly become big.  The doctor informs Nai Nai’s sister that the CT scan shows Stage IV lung cancer.  The sister and the extended family elect to withhold this info from Nai Nai, saying the scan only revealed “benign shadows.”

Billi’s parents Haiyan and Jian immediately leave for China, with Billi, a broke aspiring writer, following fast behind.  There, they meet up with Nai Nai’s other son and his family, who now reside in Japan.  It’s their first time back in China together in 25 years, and they falsely claim the reason for their reunion is a wedding.

Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) and Billi (Awkwafina), together in “The Farewell”

The weight of this fiction and the terminal diagnosis shows on all of the voyagers’ faces, but Nai Nai, after initial doubts, seems joyous merely to have everyone around the same dinner table again.  The Farewell does a decent job of depicting how such gatherings reflexively rekindle old conflicts: Jian bristles under recollections of her mother-in-law’s controlling tendencies, as Billi resents the childhood move to America, away from the place where her happiest memories were created.

As alluded to before, the best part of The Farewell is its portrayal of the collision of eastern and western values.  Billi, thoroughly enculturated into the western way of blunt truth-telling of bad news, so the individual can buck up and fly strong, is scandalized by her family’s behavior.  The older generations (and the Chinese medical establishment) see their fiction as a “good lie,” allowing the extended family to dote on the terminally ill person and carry most of the emotional weight.

Much of The Farewell’s tension revolves around Billi’s cogitating on whether she will choose to tell Nai Nai the truth, silently acquiesce in the lie, or actively enable it.  In this process, Lulu Wang barely tilts her cards to reveal the side she takes in this cultural dichotomy.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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