The Farewell (2019)
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Cinematographer: Anna Franquesa Solano
Producer: Daniele Melia, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, and Anita Gou
by Jon Cvack
My fellow friend and cinephile at work mentioned that The Farewell was his favorite film of the year and given that we’re in month eight (at the time this writing) I knew that was saying something. The story is about a second generation Chinese American student named Billi (Awkwafina) who lives in New York City and is struggling to get by; falling behind on her bills, counting on getting the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and getting a letter of rejection.
Billi returns home to her high strung mother, Jian (Diana Lin), cooking dinner and discovers her dad, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), upstairs and upset; nervous that he’s started drinking again. He reveals that Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) has gotten lung cancer and is estimated to die in four months. Jian and Haiyan want the family to return to China to pretend to attend Billi’s weird cousin’s wedding in order to share some time with Nai Nai and say goodbye.
Per Chinese custom, the family will not tell Nai Nai that her mom has cancer until just a few weeks before she passes. Billi vehemently disagrees, believing it wrong to lie to grandmother and failing to grasp the cultural significance. From an immediate view, I imagine most agree with Billi, and yet you then realize the benefit. If a person thinks that they just have a cold and it might end soon, it’s not as though they’re doomed to reflect on their imminent death and forced to countdown the days. The purpose is to bear the burden and guilt in place of the victim who’s then allowed to appreciate her final days.
Billi doesn’t inform her family that she’s coming, and while the rest of her family is suspicious, Nai Nai is thrilled to see her granddaughter. We meet the suspicious bride and groom, the peculiar looking Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his acne-ridden fiance Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) who play some of the best characters of the film; in which all the family members wonder why on Earth they’re getting married, whether it’s because of a child, or if they actually love each other. They never speak a word to one another, always looking as though they’re sucked out of reality.
We go on to learn and discover the other characters; from Billi’s father glued to his brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo)’ s hip; drinking more and more every night until finally taking up smoking again. We watch Billi’s alarm and disappointment. To think we only heard a single question earlier, and still this moment captures so much history. Her dad evidently had a drinking problem and he’s flirting with it once again and Awkwafina's reaction shows the past.
Nai Nai is your above average happy go lucky grandmother; loving each and every moment with her family; still seeing herself as the matriarch and in control, watching over and guiding their lives. Nai Nai’s sister Nai Nai (Lu Hong) was the only underdeveloped character (which you could suspect for having the same name). Her flashy style and unique look blended well with the family, but it felt like the one person I wanted to know more about.
Strange enough, I experienced a similar situation recently. My cousin was getting married on the East Coast and after just taking a week off to be with my girlfriend for an important family event, my grandmother demanded I go to the wedding. My dad had always criticized anyone making co-workers' lives inconvenient for your personal benefit. My work already provided me time off to go with my girlfriend on vacation to New York and asking for more time felt unfair. I’m of course saying this in defense of the fact that I did not go to the wedding. My grandmother is 97 years old and now believes she will go any day; regardless of the fact that she still writes me multiple letters per week, cooks her own meals, and lives on her own; fully mobile. She’s at the age where it could happen, she just doesn’t appear in the condition that would lead many to think such.
Of course the movie was a strange coincidence; about a woman Billi who wants to be with her dying grandmother one last time at the wedding. The movie is as much about change as about family, and how people continue relationships when there’s so much distance or culture apart. There is a great dinner scene where the family talks about China, its booming economy, and - ever so gently - the ways in which America allows for freedom while China limits it. Billi’s great lesson is learning to communicate with all those around her. Her greatest challenge being to convince her family they’re wrong and that they should tell her grandmother, hoping they’ll soon hear her, but then finally hearing them.
It’s the best film I’ve seen all year as well. It’s when the credits rolled that I got the biggest smile; seeing that the director’s grandmother continues to live to this day, years since being diagnosed. I think my grandma will be doing the same.
Unfortunately, having written this about a year and a half ago, my own grandmother finally passed away last November at the age of 99. Miss you Gram.
BELOW: Little taste
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