Directed By Lulu Wang
Starring – Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
The Plot – A headstrong Chinese-American woman (Awkwafina) returns to China when her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time.
Rated PG for thematic material, brief adult language and some smoking
– Cathartic direction. Wang herself lived through this story, so in her ability to write and direct these very intimate situations, she outlines a series of nuances within her family environment that are given these moments of personalization from her subtle touch. As a storyteller, Wang is someone who takes value in preserving the integrity and realism within a scene, choosing to let a laugh or emotional pull feel earned with the progression of those who move in and out of frame. This not only gives the movie a unique manner in its telling of exposition, but it also allows us the audience to absorb more of the ever-changing roller-coaster in tone that so much of the film rests its shoulders on. On the surface level, “The Farewell” is a Hallmark card to the woman who cemented such a legacy within Lulu’s heart, and it’s one that transcends geographic designation in favor of feelings and emotions that makes every culture similar in heart.
– Chinese culture. It was refreshing and even thought-provoking to learn about Chinese mentality, especially that with how they view America as a prestigious destination. Throughout the film, we are given many examples of Chinese citizens describing the dream that is the land of the free, but it’s in Billi’s love for her birthplace, as well as the absorbing quality in visuals that hint at that feeling of home being where you make it. Even though America is usually thought of as the greatest country in the world, here China makes its claim with entrancing landscapes and a yearning for family importance that offers plenty of poignancy for comparative dissection. With the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and now this movie, the tide seems to be turning for cultural reaffirmation, and it’s great that American productions are allowing themselves the faith and integrity to focus on a demographic that has been ignored for far too long in cinema.
– Tonal balance. “The Farewell” is a full-fledged dramedy that competently and consistently reaches for two tones in direction that are mastered wonderfully without one ever compromising the other. What’s so rich about the humor is that it often comes at the expense of a family in their most intimate of settings, yet never feels condemning or insulting to them at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic weight preserved from such a condemning lie within this family keeps this cloud of regret hanging over them through each celebratory occasion that each of them knows will be the last for their beloved family member. What’s surprising is how each of these sides develop naturally through the dynamic of each relationship, giving us several moments, like life, that can throw a shower of moods our way thanks to the spontaneity that keeps us on our toes.
– The Lie. You always hear how something bad happening to one person doesn’t just hurt them, but everyone around them, and this case couldn’t be heard more loudly than the deceit that so many people keep buried deep inside. In one example, a couple within the family rushes their marriage all for the sake of Grandma being alive long enough to see it, and what this does is not only lessen what is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime special day, but also leaves the bride and the groom mentally paralyzed to shake their minds free of anyone or anything other than their sick grandmother. Likewise, the longer this lie is maintained, the more the characters flirt with eventually letting it all go, and it makes for some truly crippling scenarios that certainly hurt them, and leave the only person physically affected by all of this left unscathed. Perhaps justification and logic for why the lie was created in the first place.
– Eye-opening performance. Awkwafina is easily the main focus here, and it’s definitely a good thing, as this starring role allows her to shed most of her comedic impact that has typecast her so far in her career, in favor of dramatic chops that pull at your heart. Awkwafina’s watery eyes and soft-spoken demeanor are only topped by the performance of her body language, that channel what is taking place internally within her. What’s so pivotal about this is that it accurately portrays grief as something so much more than emotional, and articulates a measure in performance that other films dealing with grief often overlook when directing their films. It’s clear that Wang demanded more from Awkwafina, and thanks to her protagonist’s untouched dedication to the role, we get a transformative performance from her that serves as the cemented argument whenever anyone challenges her dramatic depth.
– A rare feat. It’s not often that a live action film, especially a dramatic one, attains a PG rating, but “The Farewell” proves that it doesn’t require unnecessary attributes to sell the meaning of its material. Never at any point in the film did these missing contributions hinder the quality of the film I was watching, nor did it make the character’s feel any less human because of my lack of familiarity with how I myself respond to grief. What’s truly compelling is despite the grown-up demeanor in consequences to the screenplay, this really is a film for the whole family, and one that pertains a gentle side of mental conflict that takes up so much time of the advancement within its character’s.
– Variety in shot composition. There’s a strong sense of maturity within Wang that helped her grow as on-screen presenter the longer the film went on. During the first act, much of her angles and framing rate felt very grounded and uninspiring, but during the film’s second half, her sense of experimentation took over, and brought us a series of memorable shots that gave the film strong artistic merit. Several long-take scenes, character following shots, That 70’s Show style during a Chinese memory game where everyone is drunk, and the gorgeous detailing of framing that reflects some vibrant levels of Chinese decorations. These shots are not only filled with lots of personality as described in the later shot I previously mentioned, but also visually reflect the change in tempo and mood from what is transpiring on-screen before our very eyes.
– Layers in musical accompaniment. Alex Weston’s work here is seamless with emotional weight. So much so that his score for the movie mostly emits a level of ominous dread that really captures the essence of the task that this family is left to deal with. Likewise, the soundtrack of assorted top 40 favorites to a Chinese rendering is equally captivating, and gives the movie a level of pop culture familiarity that helps it in being as equally accessible as the film’s many central themes. It will probably take a re-watch to gather all of them, but some that I definitely noticed were “Killing Me Softly” from The Fugees, “Come Healing” by Leonard Cohen, and another 80’s favorite that I currently can’t put my finger on, that closed the film. The Chinese instrumentals that go alongside each of these tracks provides weight in geographic location to perfectly place where the story is at all times, and Weston’s ceremonious string of stingers presets the proper mood scenes before the character conflicts ever do.
– Abrupt ending. For a movie so content with sentimentality, the lack of care instilled in the film’s closing minutes felt anti-climatic, and left me yearning for more in terms of impactful closing moments, Sure, there’s a pre-credits visual text that tells us everything we need to know about the family associated with the story, but it does that on-going Hollywood cliche where it tells what it should be showing, and leaves the biggest article of importance as a post-movie afterthought, free from the disjointed closing shots, that felt a bit tacked-on.
– Plot hole. One thing that I couldn’t overlook in the movie was the grandmother’s condition not feeling clearly evident to her that she is dying, despite what everyone along the way is telling her. I myself have never had cancer, at least as far as I know, but I’ve heard that you literally feel the life draining out of you, and in spite of all of this, the grandmother in the film is completely clueless when it comes to her condition. Especially considering how long she has been told that she has to live, it’s a bit misleading that she hasn’t picked up on some of the long term symptoms that ride alongside a disease so conforming and shaping of the people we know and love.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+