' ' Cinema Romantico: The Farewell

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Farewell

“The Farewell” opens with Billi (Awkwafina), an Asian-American in New York, conversing by phone with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), in Changchung, China. They both stand in front of obviously fake backdrops, denoting the little white lies they are telling, Billi about a writing fellowship, Nai Nai about a doctor’s visit. And if this gives us a quick window into their respective lives, it also foreshadows the forthcoming Big Lie – that is, Nai Nai’s family going to extravagant lengths to conceal her cancer diagnosis so she can live her final months in ignorant bliss, inviting the whole family to Changchung under the pretenses of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) getting married, a means of saying goodbye without saying it. And if this story is based, as the opening credit goes, on an actual lie from writer/director Lulu Wang’s life, “The Farewell’s” foremost fib also ingeniously, if a little cunningly, allows a movie ostensibly dealing with the darkest side of life to still a maintain an overriding sunny disposition, which makes for an occasionally odd experience, as if the movie itself doesn’t want to deal with the can of worms it has deliberately opened. Of course, that might merely by own Americanness talking.

Billi wants to attend the wedding-as-living-wake with her family, though they command her to stay home, afraid her outsized Americanized emotions will give away the game. True to Stateside individual rebelliousn, Billi shows up anyway, looking glum, though the character smartly harmonizes with Awkwafina’s comic persona to make it so she deflects whenever necessary with wry jokes. And though Nai Nai chalks up her granddaughter’s glumness to American insecurities, there are moments when Shuzhen, with nothing but a kind of heightened glimmer in the eye, suggests she might be wise to the family charade. We never know, though, because “The Farewell” doesn’t spend much time just in her stead, sticking close to Billi, our surrogate, meaning the ultimate question is not whether Nai Nai will find out but whether Billi will tell her, or encourage others that they should tell her. It’s a culture clash, not unlike “Crazy Rich Asians”, though much more elegiac than uproarious, building not to a confrontation or even release but something like cosmic acceptance with a conclusion that reminded me a little of “He Got Game” ending by suddenly entering the mystic.

In sticking close to Billi, however, the other characters here do not so much fall by the wayside, always present and accounted for, as remain vague, even unknown. Billi’s father (Tzi Ma) seems to be a recovering alcoholic, though this is never explored with any depth, and his reasons for coming to America in the first place are hardly clear beyond a couple platitudes. As Hao Hao, Han gets great mileage simply from his bewildered smile, frequently shading into mouth-agape panic, though the notion of the marriage, pretend or otherwise, remains hidden in plain sight, like his ersatz bride, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), always on the edge of frames with facial expressions that truly make you wonder about her thoughts, feelings, motivations. Yet if this seems to render Wang’s impressive commitment to master shots, squeezing this considerable family into every frame, as window dressing if we never get to know them, it makes more sense taken in the context of Billi’s uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) explaining the prevailing eastern attitude of family essentially existing as a single, massive entity rather than an assortment of individuals, one that Billi struggles to acknowledge she’s part of, her dueling identities emerging as the preeminent tension.

That is furthered in Haibin observing that in telling Nai Nai the truth they would merely be transmitting the grief onto her when their role in this time to carry the grief for her, an idea Awkwafina embodies in her frequently hunched over posture. If the attending agony of carrying this pain might have resonated more had the movie sought to truly dissect it, their bottling it up nevertheless gives beautiful rise to the real-life twist which this review will not reveal; so much distress just seems to wash away, leaving this westerner to wonder if the east has it right.

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