Director: Lulu Wang
Writers: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Runtime: 100 mins
MPAA Rating: PG
Before viewing The Farewell, I was not familiar with Chinese-American writer-director Lulu Wang as she has only one other feature-length director credit to her name, and I knew nothing about the film other than that it was an indie hit at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. After reading some background, I learned that the story is largely autobiographical with regards to Wang’s life and family but with fictionalized characters in place of her and her family members. Knowing that the film’s impetus is from a deeply personal place, I was able to more easily comprehend why the presentation felt so genuine.
Based on an “actual lie”, the story follows struggling Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) who learns from her immigrant father (Tzi Ma) and mother (Diana Lin) that her grandmother or Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still living in China has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and is predicted to have only a few months to live. Despite being far apart, Billi shares a close relationship with Nai Nai and takes issue when the family decides to adhere to Chinese cultural beliefs and not inform the family matriarch of her impending death. Furthermore, a wedding for Billi’s cousin is used as a pretext for gathering the family together with Nai Nai in China one last time. From this set up, the dramatic irony of the situation inserts an intriguing ethical dimension into nearly every scene which would otherwise just be mundane conversation. Is it okay to lie to a dying family member about their approaching fate? Should you take away someone’s hope and joy of life in what remains of it?
The character of Billi is essentially Wang, and the entire story is a direct reflection of her life. I believe Wang’s superb script is the product of equal parts talent and personal outpouring. All of the characters feel like real people because they are one-to-one mappings of real people (in the case of Nai Nai’s sister, the fictional character and real-life counterpart are in fact one and the same). Every conversation is natural and none of the emotions that characters express seem forced. The script accomplishes the difficult task of presenting both drama and humor well while maintaining consistent tone and focus. Quality acting from the entire cast fleshes out each of the characters; most of these characters are not intricately developed, but they do not really need to be since they just come across as real people who are supposed to be where they are. Awkwafina is particularly skilled at bringing to life a conflicted woman dominated by latent sadness and stress who does everything she can to appear happy and at ease. Ultimately, what makes this story compelling is the conflict stemming from Billi’s virtues being caught between a Western upbringing and a respect for her Eastern heritage. One of the best scenes in the movie occurs in a hospital as a Chinese doctor educated in the United Kingdom lies to Nai Nai about her current diagnosis. In English, Billi starts aggressively questioning the ethics of what he is doing as a medical professional while the grandmother sits there unable to decipher the gibberish going back and forth. The whole scene does a fantastic job realistically highlighting the sharp cultural divide on what would be the ethical course of action in such a situation.
Primarily shot in Wang’s old neighborhood in the Chinese city of Changchun, the film is an overall pleasant viewing experience. Throughout the film, the shot composition and lighting choices remain tasteful and aesthetically pleasing. Many well-framed wide shots requiring coordination of moving parts serve to bring the local environment and culture to life. Every aspect of the visual presentation is restrained and helps to solidify the tone and draw out the emotion of each individual scene. A memorable extended-take tracking shot artfully reinforces a character’s state of mind at a pivotal point in the story. With the visuals never going over the top and the editing staying subdued, the film stays contemplative and grounded in reality as I am certain Wang wants.
That being said, I do have a few insignificant technical nitpicks. The blocking in a few shots looks a bit awkward in that out-of-focus characters or objects dominate the center of the frame for more than a brief moment. There is one scene with operatic singing that is supposed to be emanating from a live singer who is being filmed in slow motion. It looks as if they are trying to lip sync the slow-motion mouth movements to the song which is played in real-time, and it looks really sloppy and fake. To do this correctly, you need to have the actress “singing” the words in real-time at a faster pace to match the higher frame rate of the slow motion as is commonly done in music videos. During a dinner scene involving an electric lazy Susan circulating dishes around a table, there is not one iota of attention given to the continuity of the positions of the distinct food dishes in relation to the characters seated at the circular table. As the film cuts between a wide shot of the entire table and close shots centered on particular family members, dishes are teleporting all around the table. This is an extremely minor grievance, and I do not even think I would have noticed if it were not for the subtitles drawing my attention to the bottom of the frame where they are centered right in front of the dishes on the lazy Susan underneath the character in focus.
The Farewell is a profoundly human experience and has few missteps. The fact that Wang’s personal story is inextricably linked to what appears on screen allows for genuine emotional resonance as the fictional story reaches its poignant peaks. I do wish that the ethical dilemma at the center of the plot could have been examined a bit further and taken in a more intriguing direction as most of that development is over with after the first act. However, the exploration of culture, family dynamics, and finding joy in one’s life in the film’s latter stages nearly make up for that lost opportunity. Consequently, I am definitely looking forward to Lulu Wang’s next project. If you are a fan of heartfelt family dramas, this is the film for you. If you need to take your mother or grandmother to a movie this year, this is also the film for you.
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