Director: Lulu Wang
Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao
It takes a significant amount of hubris on the part of a critic, a blogger (*glances both ways*) or a casual viewer to look at a work of art – the result of many, many collaborations – and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing”. Have we done any of the work? Have we toiled? No. But coming out of The Farewell into some (brief) sunshine, I tried to gain a sense of the sum of this wonderful little movie I’d experienced; a perfectly shaped piece that’ll be loved and cherished for years to come. Writing now, only a short time later, I feel like I’m rushing to a conclusion. It’d probably be better to let it settle, let it linger, but here we are 111 words in anyway…
The Farewell is clearly a personal piece for director Lulu Wang, who opens her film with a cute inter-title advising us that it’s “Based on an actual lie.” Her foil in the film is Awkwafina; who is fast showing herself to be a great acting talent. Having impressed from the margins in glossy fare like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, its wonderful to see her afforded centre stage like this. Her performance here as Billi is completely without ego or bluster. She’s pared down, slouchy, quiet, angry and superb.
Though born in China, Billi has been raised as an American, and perhaps more acutely, a New Yorker. We meet her at a point of rejection in her life, losing out on a grant from the Guggenheim. Her family are supportive of her, but not above the odd barbed comment. Similarly, her affectionate grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) will frequently call her “stupid”, but the two share the kind of bond many would crave. These are the truisms of family that Wang places front and centre.
Nai Nai – who lives in China still – has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and the prognosis is that she has about 3 months left to live. Billi is devastated, but all the more shocked by the family’s decision to keep the news from Nai Nai herself, who has been told that her results are all clear. This, her uncle points out to her, is a traditional response in China. One of the film’s more callously humorous moments finds her mother Lu Jian (Diana Lin) explaining that there is an old Chinese proverb; “When people get cancer they die.” But what she means is that the news is as toxic as the disease. It is the family’s duty to carry the burden for her, and this theme of responsibility remains for the rest of the movie.
The family rallies around but keeps their gigantic secret. A wedding is hastily arranged as pretence, and Billi follows everyone to China where the various strands of family are reunited. Lu Jian urges her not to go, as its feared that she won’t be able to hide her emotions. Perhaps Billi is just too Westernised to faithfully inhabit the rouse?
It’s one of the questions lightly proffered to the audience over the course of this delicate but never fragile piece of filmmaking. Billi wrestles with her conscience and argues with her family over whether to break the news to Nai Nai, but Wang never really builds her film around the tension of whether or not this will really happen. Instead The Farewell deftly encourages our participation by asking us to decide how we’d react. Are there beautiful lies? And just how naive is Nai Nai? She must be aware of the custom she’s the centre of…
The sense of stoicism and maybe even complicit agreement may form part of a distinctly Eastern tradition, but behaviours like this are common in all families. Alan Ball’s exceptional HBO series Six Feet Under was rooted in the concept of secret lives shared by a close family unit. The Farewell exists in a similar space of pregnant pauses and furtive looks. But it also warmly observes the rituals that occur when we reconvene with those we’re related to.
The wedding itself takes up a nice portion of running time, but there’s also a family trip to the cemetery and a number of meals (The Farewell is the year’s most giving film for foodies). At one point Wang has her camera swirl around a table at speed until the faces of those present seem to merge. The idea being communicated is clear.
By and large, however, she resists overt displays and her film is all the better for it. She enjoys nesting people in the lower part of the frame, and that’s something I find pleasing, too. She also has a subtle eye for colour combinations, with costumes and settings frequently complimenting one another. Without broadcasting, she has made a consistently agreeable film to look at.
Tonally, The Farewell is a pristine balancing act, too. Always bittersweet, it leans into comedy without becoming churish, while the central conceit provides the right amount of drama with no need to press on it. The cast are uniformally excellent and the running time is just right. Nothing feels excessive, no moments seem wasted.
So, even as I try to remain measured and am eager to resist hyperbolic statements, I’m right back there again, admitting it to myself.
I wouldn’t change a thing.