Film Review: ‘The Farewell’ (2019), dir. Lulu Wang
Warning: Minor Spoilers Below.
To critics and Asian American audiences alike, Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell was never going to fail.
That much was apparent in the insane rollout and press cycle for the film. After Wang took home the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award, soaring reviews allowed Wang to continue to dominate the headlines on every major media site. NPR, HuffPo, IndieWire, Vulture all took their respective interviews with Wang herself and framed the film as a bonafide masterpiece. On social media, Asian American filmmakers and fans alike ran campaigns to champion the film, building each other up and even buying out entire film screens to show their support. If 2018 was the year of Crazy Rich Asians, 2019 is going to be the year of The Farewell.
And overall, they couldn’t have chosen a better film to back.
The Farewell chronicles the true story (“Based on an actual lie,” as the film cheekily tells you) of how Wang’s own family chose to deal with the news of her grandma’s terminal illness. Billi (Awkwafina)–Wang’s fictional stand-in–and her family flies back to China under the guise of throwing a fake wedding for one of her cousins. It’s the perfect plan: Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) gets a final chance at celebrating life with her family, while the rest of the family gets to say their final goodbyes. But for Billi, one question gnaws away at her for the entirety of the film. Should Nai Nai know the truth?
Therein lies the main, drawn-out conflict of The Farewell—the vastly differing ideologies between East vs. West. For Billi, an Asian American, telling Nai Nai is the correct thing to do. It’s direct, transparent, and information that Nai Nai should know in order to properly say goodbye. However, to the rest of her family, bearing the responsibility of knowing is a shared burden. “Why make Nai Nai suffer even more than she has to?,” they ask. The illusion that everything is alright is more important than actually being alright.
Wang cleverly weaves in that Eastern idea of “the illusion” throughout the film, making it a central motif that pops up again and again. Billi’s father (Tzi Ma), for example, tells his family members that he’s not a smoker anymore yet continues to take secret drags when the others aren’t looking. In another, Wang interpolates shots of professionally dressed workers playing on their phones and half-dressed lion dancers smoking during the banquet to show how easily the “illusion” of professionalism can be broken. The family’s visit to a graveyard is prefaced by someone saying “Some people hire professional criers to make the dead seem more important than they really are.” Hard cut to a woman over-dramatically wailing during an adjacent funeral procession, calling into question the sincerity of it all. Appearances, it seems, is everything in Eastern ideology.
As the differing philosophies of West vs East continue to rage on throughout the film, Wang also presents a somewhat critical look at the antiquated traditions that the family members are so keen to follow. When the family visits Billi’s deceased grandfather’s grave, they’re not too sure what they’re doing. As the family members comically fumble around with burning paper money and cardboard iPads (another sign of changing times), they reveal their own unfamiliarity with these very traditions that they claim are steadfast. In another moment, Billi’s father and uncle make complete fools of themselves as they run around in circles trying to find out where Nai Nai’s hospital is. Even though the patriarchs of the family talk big about protecting Nai Nai and her feelings, their actions reveal that they’re just as lost as anyone else–both physically and mentally. This uncertainty is exactly the kind of doubt that lingers throughout The Farewell.
But while Wang’s film does a fantastic job of presenting the Chinese perspective, it comes just a bit short when presenting the Western point of view. After a certain point in time, Billi seems to just accept what’s happening to the family and rests her case. She stops fighting to be heard–rather, she takes it all in and becomes one with the system. By the end of the film, there’s no real conclusion and no real overriding conflict other than that cultural clash. The question of whether or not Nai Nai has a right to know about her own fate never really gets resolved. Perhaps one can say that that’s the whole point of the story–that there’s no true “correct” way of thinking when it comes to Billi’s situation. Wang seems to leave it up to the viewer for their own takeaway, but it can come off as feeling inconclusive (especially given how conclusive the pre-credits epilogue is). Additionally, the film skips over the viewpoints of the Japanese cousins Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), whose fake wedding the whole family is attending. Wang explores nearly every other character’s thoughts on the unfolding situation within the film’s runtime, but these two characters unfortunately don’t really get a chance to put their two cents in.
Despite all of those unexplored avenues (The Farewell is only a 98 minute film, after all), The Farewell is a powerful showcase for Lulu Wang as a director. Each scene within The Farewell is beautifully framed and ornately designed. Wang dares to venture into that arthouse look that few Asian American films dare to tackle, with great success. Wang also has a very firm grasp on cinema as a medium in motion, using all of the elements in the frame to its fullest potential. From the idiosyncratic soundtrack to the off-center framing of certain characters, The Farewell has a distinct artistic vision through and through. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when fake couple Hao Hao and Aiko take cheesy wedding photos in the background while Nai Nai and Billi have a casual conversation in the foreground. There’s an interesting dichotomy between the oblivious joy of Nai Nai’s character versus the serious awkwardness between Hao Hao and Aiko–one can’t help but laugh as these two clashing atmospheres occupy the same frame. The plush wedding banquet scenes and round table scenes are absolutely stunning, making each frame a treat. But these artistic shots at times gets to be a little too much. There are a few self-gratifying slow-motion shots that seem to be thrown in just to look cool (Billi and her family walking towards the camera, posse style) and some scene transitions seem to happen without meaning (in one case, the camera slowly zooms in on an air conditioner vent before cutting to the next scene). However, even with these off-kilter components to The Farewell (which probably won over the film’s infamously eccentric film distributors, A24), Wang proves that she is an artist with a unique vision that singles her out as a standout director. It’s better to be bold and experimental rather than boring.
An equal blend of arthouse, melodrama, biting realism, and uniquely Asian American flair, The Farewell is a film that will hopefully usher in a new era of Asian American indie stories–while guaranteeing greater things to come for Lulu Wang.