Review: The Farewell

I had been waiting to see this film for some time and was very lucky to discover it was showing at The Embassy in Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Wellingtonians are always enthusiastic supporters of such festivals and this particular screening was no exception. The theatre was packed – not a spare seat to be found and the grand old lady can hold a few patrons!

The Farewell is, at its heart, a story about family, more specifically the director, Lulu Wang’s family, and is based on an actual lie. Trust me … it says so itself! 

Billi (played very well by Awkwafina in a dramatic role that is modelled after Wang) is a Chinese American woman living in New York struggling to be a writer. She discovers through her parents that her beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) living back in Changchun, China, is dying having been diagnosed with cancer. However the family have decided not to tell Nai Nai of her condition, something that Billie struggles with. She was raised in America from a very young age and has a predominantly western perspective on life. 

The family all return to China to visit and spend time with Nai Nai under the guise of attending the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao even though he and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko, have only been dating for three months and by the looks of things are nowhere near the marriage stage yet.

At first the family don’t want Billi to return as they fear she will not be able to keep the secret or her emotions in check but she goes anyway, wanting to spend whatever time Nai Nai has left with her. 

From the way I have described the movie it sounds very sombre and sad but it is anything but. In fact it is very funny, poignantly and often hilariously so. 

One of the scenes (among many) that had the whole audience laughing out loud takes place during a visit to the graveside of Nai Nai’s deceased husband where they are leaving respectful offerings for him. An argument takes place about whether to leave a lit cigarette – trust me you’ll be shaking your head at the absurdity of what they are saying, yet all the while seeing the humor and humanity of the situation.

Another moment of mirth includes what has to be the most awkward wedding photo session with Hao Hao and Aiko. The poor couple look dazed and powerless, caught up in the family’s plan, unable to do anything about it but being respectful of what they are trying to do and the reason why.

This ties into one of the major themes of the movie – the difference between Eastern and Western culture specifically relating to family and relationships and how these different perspectives clash. 

As a westerner watching the film (and I am sure I am not alone in this) I understood where Billi was coming from. She wanted to tell her grandmother the truth so that Nai Nai could have the time to say anything that needed to be said as she approached the end of her life. She felt it was wrong to deny Nai Nai this opportunity. During a moment in a hospital waiting room it was even pointed out that in America it was illegal to lie or withhold the full medical truth from Nai Nai the way the family were.

The reasoning for the lie is explained to Billi in probably one of my favourite scenes in the movie because it helped me to bridge the gap and gain some understanding as well. Late one night she comes across her father and uncle, sharing a smoke and grappling with the situation. Her father is very conflicted and wants to be truthful with his mother. Billi’s uncle tells her that in the West a person’s life is their own. It belongs to the individual for them to do as they please, ultimately independent of family. In the East a person’s life is part of the wider family whole. Decisions are made as a group in support of each other. In Billi’s family they all work together as a unit to carry the emotional burden for Nai Nai so she doesn’t have to. A collective vs individual perspective. Her father decides cannot go against tradition and the wishes of his family and so he keeps quiet.

I am probably not explaining it very well but it made perfect sense when relayed in the context of the feelings and events within the movie. While I think she will always have reservations I believe that it does help Billi get some perspective on why the family is taking this course of action.

Interestingly it is also revealed that Nai Nai herself perpetrated the same lie when her husband was dying, as did a doctor at the hospital where Nai Nai goes when she doesn’t feel well. 

This is also a very powerful scene. The doctor is western educated and at one point he and Billi openly discuss her grandmothers condition and prospects right in front of her in english (which Nai Nai doesn’t understand) while at the same time the doctor lies to Nai Nai in chinese. It creates an amazingly tense few moments and further shows the interesting juxtaposition of East vs West.

The theme of family is continued through other relationships, one being that between the sons of Nai Nai. While Billi’s father settled in America, her uncle went to Japan and they haven’t met up together in 25 years. Both feel the guilt of not spending enough time together and with their mother. This, coupled with Nai Nai’s illness, prompts Billi’s uncle to have what I would call a mini breakdown at the wedding banquet where he gives a somewhat tearful speech.

And there are illusions to a difficult mother-daughter relationship for Billi as they struggle to see eye to eye and understand each other.

This film is full of depth and has many layers that leave you thinking and pondering long after the credits have rolled. Nothing is simple and characters are not being difficult just for the sake of plot and story. This is a real story about real people. There are reasons for actions and decisions taken and it is a real credit to the director, Lulu Wang, that she successfully conveys those reasons and understanding to her audience, many of whom will not have previously had an insight into Chinese family life.

The film is also brilliantly expressed in the way music is used and how it is shot and framed. And I am so happy that most of it is in Manderin (with subtitles). It helps preserve the authenticity of the story. Every actor is perfect in the role they play, all contributing to the many storytelling moments that help create a rich picture of a family trying to cope with terrible news and navigate one of life’s most difficult events – the illness of a beloved figure.

It was not until after watching the movie that I realised that the actress who plays Nai Nai’s sister (affectionately called Little Nai Nai) is in fact the woman she plays in real life. The director uses the actual person to portray herself on screen. 

I loved this film. It was captivating, funny, touching and thoroughly engrossing. I wasn’t the only one who thought so either. Every person in the theatre was clapping in deep appreciation when it ended. 

A great watch – not to be missed.

Rating: 5 stars

Watched: 28 July 2019

(Header Image: Skitterphoto)

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