Review by Jacquelin Hipes
It’s a question most of us have likely posed to ourselves at one time or another: when the end comes would you rather face it head-on, or trundle forward in blissful ignorance? The answer probably takes into account a mixture of the practical (financial or other arrangements) and the intangible (death is scary!). Regardless of how you would want to cope – or not – with the news of your impending death, your approach is incontrovertibly personal and unique.
If you’re an American, at least.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which begins in America but takes place predominantly in China, presents a different perspective. “In the East,” one character asserts, “a person’s life is part of a whole.” This interconnected perspective is what compels a family to hide a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis from their elderly matriarch, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). Instead, they concoct a wedding as an excuse for their globally scattered members to reunite in China and bid a surreptitious farewell.
It’s an approach everyone but favorite grandchild Billi (Awkwafina) gets behind. She worries that her grandmother might have final arrangements to make or her own goodbyes to say. She thinks that the decision of the many is selfish, rather than merciful.
Although Billi and her restrained anguish are The Farewell’s grounding points, the expansive family that gathers throughout the film comes to embody not just various stages of grief, but subtle shades of regret, confusion, and doubt over their “good lie”. As the Chinese-born, American-raised Billi, Awkwafina embodies a young woman constantly pulled in opposing directions. She must confront the idea that a need for closure on her terms may not be loving, but selfish, and grieve publicly, but in secret. It’s a balance easy to under- or overplay, yet Awkwafina finds a middle ground striking and compelling in equal measure.
The family ensemble means repeat viewings are a must. With everyone but Nai Nai in on the secret of her diagnosis, every moment has a deeper meaning and every reaction carries with it the weight of finality. For large gatherings Wang often fills the frame with cousins, aunts, and grandchildren. This overpopulation has a two-fold effect: each scene brims with emotional undercurrents, but even the most astute viewer will miss some of them the first time around.
For a story centered on death and lies, The Farewell is exceptionally funny – even more so than the trailers might suggest. Wang doles out sobriety and gaiety with an even hand: a Nai Nai’s sly needling over her granddaughter’s bachelorette status taps into an awkward, undeniable humor until Billi’s uneasy smile reminds you that she doesn’t expect to see her grandmother at any future wedding.
The Farewell offers the diverse and culturally-specific storytelling sorely needed in theaters today. It also reminds filmgoers that no matter how specific a story’s focus may become, a well-grounded emotional core transcends generations, cultures, and languages.
(And maybe also that you should give your parents and/or grandparents a call. Go on and do it – it’ll make both your days a little brighter.)
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