Movie Review – The Farewell

The Farewell (2019)
Written & Directed by Lulu Wang

In 2013, Lulu Wang found out her grandmother was dying of cancer. Lulu knew this, but her grandmother did not. Wang’s parents, following a Chinese tradition, decided to refrain from telling the matriarch this until she was on her deathbed in order not to drive her into depression and ruin her otherwise upbeat demeanor. Finding this decision to be downright bizarre, Lulu conferred with her American friends and they assured her this was not the norm in the West. The experience caused Wang to contemplate her status as both a Chinese and American person, reflecting on her transition as an immigrant and return to mainland China. Out of this came a story for This American Life and now a feature film.

In The Farewell, Billi is a struggling writer in New York City who learns she has been rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship which would have changed her life and given her some stability. Just after this bad news, she catches her parents hiding her grandmother’s illness, citing Billi’s difficulty in hiding her emotions. They leave for Changchun to help pull off a fake wedding for a cousin as an excuse for the family to gather together for the first time in twenty-five years. While Billi is not invited she journies to her grandmother’s home anyway and begins a dialogue with her parents and family about what is the best course of action. Should Nai Nai be told of her three-month prognosis or be allowed to live in blissful ignorance?

Wang is very obviously influenced by contemporary European cinema in her shot composition, specifically the work of Ruben Ostlund. There are lots of intentional off-center shots with characters cut off on the sides of the frame or barely peeking up from the bottom. Wang uses her composition to bring out the humor and poignancy of scenes, for example, allowing an opera-singing performer at the wedding to underscore her cousin’s sloppy drunken crying fit in the middle of the banquet hall. There’s an absolutely fantastic slow-motion medium shot in the third act of the family walking towards the camera that is framed and scored to perfection. For a second film, the technique on display is remarkable. These are not the most dynamic scenes, people sitting in a room and talking, yet the cinematography is gorgeous.

The premise of the film is a beautiful opening into examining the emotional tug-of-war of being an immigrant, especially when your homeland’s culture contrasts significantly with the place you have made your new life. There are lots of shots of the transforming landscape of mainland China, with carbon copy high rise buildings springing up in seeming endless rows. We glimpse paid mourners at the cemetery when Billi’s family visits to pay tribute to her late grandfather. Her own family burns carboard facsimiles of iPhones and other valuables as an offering up to the dead man. The film isn’t after a conclusive view of whether or not the decision to keep vital information from Nai Nai is good or bad. That’s for the audience to mull over when the credits roll and Wang provides a surprising endnote.

There is a moment around the dinner table where Billi’s extended family goes into a simmering argument about the merits of America and China. One cousin is sending her son to the States for college, yet talks about how much easier it is to become a millionaire in China. Billi’s mother appears to be very defensive of her family’s decision to immigrate, and the two engage in a back and forth that realistically never has a satisfying conclusion but is ended by Nai Nai who doesn’t want this animosity growing between relatives.

While the immigrant experience is a big part of the story Wang is telling, we can’t ignore the universal elements of being part of a family and emotional complications that come along with that. The dense histories family members have between each other leads them to pre-emptively acting based on what they perceive another person will do. Nai Nai’s sister, a great-aunt in the family, is told she’s given up so much of her own life for her sibling and that rings true of older relatives on my mom’s side who see their devotion to the care of a family member as more important than pursuing a career or being fulfilled by some other achievement. Billi’s uncle lays out the differences to her, explaining that the collectivist/individualist conflict between cultures, but I’ve seen in the American Midwest that sense of collectivism between families and small communities. Even in urban spaces, makeshift families often come together, knowing not everyone will reap an equal reward, just that the work being done is essential.

The Farewell is a beautifully crafted film about family and identity that manages to be transcendent while telling such a culturally specific story. The muted sense of humor is a perfect fit for the world and characters, allowing us to laugh but never turning the situation into farce. There’s also a lot of ambiguity, a recurring motif of a bird getting trapped in Billi’s homes, both in the West and China. Like the clash of cultures, the film doesn’t spell out what these moments mean but leave it up to the audience to inferring what they will.

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