The Farewell is a moving and absorbing tale about love, family, death, and culture. A good movie about just one of these things would be a feat unto itself. Lulu Wang has gone a step beyond and made a great film about all four.
Wang’s film looks at a Chinese family as they argue over the best way to show their love for their dying matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). Except she doesn’t know she’s dying nor does she know she has lung cancer. As far as Nai Nai is concerned she’s merely having trouble getting over a cold which seems more stubborn than usual.
As the movie unfurls we begin to suspect Nai Nai may not be as clueless as she may seem. Part of the joy of watching The Farewell is how little it tells you and how much it shows you. Throughout the film we see Nai Nai take everything from her family descending upon her apartment for her nephew’s wedding to Billi’s (Awkwafina) surprise arrival and even taking on the planning of the wedding itself without complaint.
Yet, in moments when she is alone with Billi she hints she may not be as naive to everyone’s true intentions. While taking wedding photos she poses the bride and groom to look “more in love”. “Makes me wonder what they do in the bedroom when I’m not here.” After all, we learn Nai Nai herself has done the same to her husband.
Billi and her family are not alone in their deceit. Despite Billi’s reluctance to go along with the family’s plan she can’t help but question it at every chance she gets. One night she comes upon her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) sharing a cigarette and a beer while they discuss their mother. Billi once again asks if maybe they shouldn’t just tell Nai Nai she’s dying.
Haibin takes a puff from the cigarette and smiles, sadness in his eyes. “You’re an American. In the West, you believe your life belongs to you and you alone.” “I know you think you are looking out for Nai Nai. But what you are really doing is trying to shirk your duty. We hide this from her so that we may carry the emotional burden of her death for her.”
Culture is a word which is thrown around a lot these days. Often used and little understood it is often tossed about without context. Wang infuses The Farewell with a rich and layered context allowing us to understand Haibin’s dedication to the ritual and Haiyan’s reluctance to go against his family. While it’s true cultures often strange to those outside it, Wang’s script takes a more interesting path.
Billi was born in China. It wasn’t until she was older than her father and mother, Jian (Diana Lin), moved to America. Jian and Haiyan go along with the family because, while they are Americans, they understand and have been raised by Chinese culture. Billi, on the other hand, seems nonplussed. But even though her parents agree to go along with the charade they can’t help but fight back in their own way.
Wang stages many scenes around the dinner table where the family gathers and discuss the events of the day and idle thoughts they have been ruminating on. In one of these Jian starts an argument with another family member when she chastises them for moving to America. “But you’re sending your son to American University?”
Jian tells stories about how amazing America is. Jian has a fraught relationship with Nai Nai. While not exactly at odds she is by no means Nai Nai’s favorite. Her vocal defense is as much a defense of America as it is a defense for Billi. Because what the relative is saying is that Billi is somehow “less” Chinese than the rest of the family.
Wang wrote and directed The Farewell and for a second feature, it is remarkably assured. Totally it is complicated. Witty and funny I could hardly call it a comedy. Except it has a wry sense of humor about itself and its characters. Though it is a movie about grieving and death it is never somber and dour. I have seen few films this year which have been so full of life and love as The Farewell.
Robert Altman was one of the great American cinematic storytellers. Every once in a while I see a movie which reminds me of him, either in scope or in detail. But rarely have I felt him as much as I did in The Farewell. The way Wang frames multiple characters in every shot without zooming in on specific characters so we might pick and choose to focus on ourselves.
The wedding scene is a collage of intimate moments, small reveals, and secondhand embarrassment. A lesser director would have gotten swept away with the number of characters or gotten bogged down in the story. Worse, they would have left us adrift scratching our head trying to remember who is related to whom and so on.
Wang and her camerawoman Anna Franquesa Solano use static framing to contrast the ever-moving characters. Notice the scene where Nai Nai teaches Billi her daily workout routine. Nai Nai is on the right-hand side of the screen. Billi, meanwhile, comes in and out of frame as she walks around trying to imitate her movements. Solano pulls the camera back, slowly, as Nai Nai moves with every set.
The scene is quiet and sublime in its simplicity. It helps that Shuzhen is a delightful and energetic presence. She has a way of communicating volumes by merely a smile or a look. I’m thinking of a scene towards the end where Billi and Nai Nai say goodbye. The way Shuzhen and Awkwafina say goodbye reminded me of the old couple in Leo McCarey’s Make Way Tomorrow. Like the old married couple Nai Nai and Billie, say they will see each other again. But both know it is highly unlikely. Sometimes tragedy lies in truths we can not bear to tell each other.
It is a cliche these days to say someone is a “revelation”. But cliche or not, Awkwafina as Billi is just that, a revelation. Like Shuzhen she embraces the quiet moments and utilizes her comedic instincts to mine the complex and layered themes of family and grief. Her Billi has secrets of her own yet can not see the irony is wanting to be honest with Nai Nai.
Wang and Solano’s still frames allow for a feast of acting we haven’t seen in a while. Other movies this year have had great performances but they were cordoned off from each other. Wang groups dozens of great performances within a single shot. She effortlessly evokes a mood and a place yet rarely relies upon garish visuals as a means to an end.
Movies for everyone oftentimes are movies for no one. Wang has made a movie specific and autobiographical and in the end, told a story anyone can relate to. The Farewell is a movie which will seep into your consciousness and sleep in your heart.