A Film a Week - The Farewell

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
With a better awards season campaign, Lulu Wang's sophomore feature "The Farewell" could have ended up with more than one Golden Globe award. The film premiered to stellar reviews at last year's edition of Sundance, which are usually enough to create a significant buzz. The decision to ship it off to wide distribution in late summer / early autumn and in anglophone countries first lead to a decent box office success ($22 million against the budget of $3 million) for an indie film, but it affected the film's chances for the awards. In 2020, The Farewell is available on video platforms and on BluRay.

The plot follows Billie (played by Chinese-American rapper/actress Nora Lum better known as Awkwafina) and her coming to terms with the fact that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying at the opposite end of the world. She is diagnosed with a terminal lung cancer, but the diagnosis is not told to her, but to her family members in order to make her live her last weeks, maybe months without unnecessary worries. From a Westerner's point of view, this kind of practice seems highly unethical (since everybody has the right to know the truth), but in China it is not that uncommon.

Nai Nai's sons and their families live outside of China. Billie might be born there, but she grew up in New York where her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin) moved when she was six years old, so her upbringing, as well as her sense of ethics, is more American than Chinese. However, her parents have made the decision to use an already scheduled wedding of Billie's cousin and Nai Nai's grandson Hao Hao (Chen Han) who grew up in Japan as a pretext for the whole family to gather and bid a farewell to the loving matriarch without letting her know the severity of her health condition.

It is all based on a not-so-little, but completely white lie, and Wang is not a bit shy about it, as we can see on an introductory title card that states "based on an actual lie". This is true on another level, since the story is semi-autobiographical, concerning her own experiences with her ill grandmother. Billie is a clear stand-in for her: a brainy, but underachieving millennial with dual cultural heritage of which at least one feels completely foreign to her. The wedding becomes an opportunity for her to get re-introduced to the home town she has only vague memories about and to her family and their ways of handling thing, while resisting the urge to speak the truth and hurt everyone around her.

In some other film, it could serve as a pretext for a broader comedy with clashes (cultural and generational) serving as the driving force for both character development and scoring the humour points. The fact that Awkwafina, who built her acting reputation by playing fast-talking supporting and funny characters in the big studio projects like "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians", plays the lead here would also be a hint. But, counter-intuitively, "The Farewell" is a completely different animal: the humorous moments are subtle, the tone is a unique blend of seriousness, warmth and melancholy, with a clear-eyed perspective of ever-changing life and ever-changing world. The city of Changchun in China's north-eastern province of Jilin also has its part that exceeds a mere location and a metaphor of a fast-growing city, it is also a place of memories and very specific codes of conduct in life that present a challenge to the protagonist. The fact that the most of the film is in Mandarin adds another layer of authenticity to the whole thing.

Awkwafina is superb in a largely dramatic role, reaching for emotional depths to deliver a great, toned-down performance where spelling out is relegated to bare minimum. On the other hand, Zhao Shuzhen, otherwise a stage actress with over 100 roles under her belt, is tasked with most of the film's subtly humorous, heart-warming moments, while the Chinese-Australian actress Diana Lin provides most of the intra-generational conflict in the film, because for her hard to please, "tiger-mom" character it goes both ways, towards her daughter and towards her mother in law.

The whole ensemble of actors and actresses is conducted masterfully by Lulu Wang and that was most of her work in the directing department. She is not reinventing the wheel when it comes to visual flavour, but assumes the role of a keen observer (she has some background in short forms, including documentaries) and tells a very personal story with astonishing clarity and uninhibited emotion. The result is a very good, sincere and heart-felt film.

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