The Farewell (2019)

“Life is not just about what you do. It’s more about how you do it.”

The Farewell might best be described as a friendly tug of war between the ingrained selfishness of Western ideologies and an Eastern ethos with a group mentality, pulling and jerking back and forth to decide how a loved one might write their inevitable last chapter. Almost like a “would you rather” hypothetical of sorts. Except here the choices aren’t would you rather know when you’re going to die or know how you’re going to die, but would you prefer to not even know at all? Maybe it’s possible to live a longer, happier life when the lingering clouds of death are not looming overhead. Maybe we can trick ourselves – or in this case be tricked by those closest to us – into seeing the clumps of cancer as benign shadows. Maybe a good lie can move you closer to the truth. The Farewell seems to think so. I do too.

From the start, it’s clear there’s something very special and personal about The Farewell. Billi (an electrifying, sensitive Awkwafina) walks the streets of New York chatting with her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China. Separated by 12 hours and generations and the tides of the Pacific Ocean, the two still take time to regularly talk on the phone. Billi assures her grandmother that she’s fine when her career is floundering and she’s months behind on her rent. Nai Nai refuses to tell her granddaughter that she’s calling from a hospital waiting room. Both are lying, both are suspicious of the other, and yet the scene plays out as emotionally true, suggesting that you can bend the truth but that the game of hide and seek can only be played for so long. These lies are a direct byproduct of unconditional love; sometimes we simply feel like we should be the ones forced to carry the weight of our own cross, or that to share the load signifies some sort of malignant weakness. There’s a reason pride is said to be the deadly sin that severs the soul from grace.

Instead of telling Nai Nai the harsh reality of the matter (that she has progressive, stage 4 lung cancer and only a few months to live at best), the family chooses to shield her from further internal and spiritual decimation, gathering together for a forced wedding ceremony instead of giving her a grim diagnosis. Although Hao Hao (Han Chen) is her only cousin, Billi is still asked to stay behind by her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) because she’s an American who can’t hide her emotions. So you can imagine how the air in the room abruptly changes when Billi surprisingly books a flight and reinserts herself into a world she hasn’t visited in decades. It’s a happy homecoming, a calculated celebration, and a secretive sendoff all taking place in the span of a few days.

Nai Nai couldn’t be happier or any more inquisitive, and the rest of the family look on in worry, afraid that the jig is up. Billi resentfully plays along, losing a piece of herself with the hope that she can gain a few more moments from one of the great loves of her life. I’ve found that holiday events with my extended family members more often than not feel like time spent with strangers. Sometimes they’re close to good friends. And once in a blue moon you find a bond that goes beyond the confines of written or spoken word and into the rare realm where a look and a nod feel inexplicably shared. Soul mates are normally thought of as soon to be spouses, but they can also be great friends, brief encounters met at the wrong time, and even family members. The Farewell goes about the latter with the kind of understanding that must be derived from experience. Life is the only author with the aptitude to write this kind of love story.

In a film full of complicated comedic bits which manage to play well and dramatic beats that tend to hit even harder, writer/director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell airs out its many autobiographical items of dirty laundry in a way that feels instantly familiar. You can smell the heat and the heart of these dinner scenes. Can taste the countless dishes overcrowding the table. Can feel the tension in the room. Wang tells the story with a mixed, modern dialect that’s both visually and tonally reminiscent of the great Yasujiro Ozu, specifically channeling his “Noriko Trilogy,” and she crafts the movie as a love letter to her tribe of family members. But that doesn’t take away from the universality of this film either. In terms of theme, Wang’s stunning debut reminded me a great deal of Mira Nair’s 2006 picture The Namesake. Both sincerely reflect on the commonalities and the differences between clashing cultures, and both memorialize home as an internalized feeling instead of a specific place. That Billi sees a sparrow in her NY apartment, then again in her Chinese hotel room, and in the end finally finds the strength to call out to her Nai Nai some 7,000+ miles away, causing a crew of sparrows to streak from a tree, is further proof that distance doesn’t separate us from our loved ones as much as we might think. They’re always there, deep inside.

With some complicated dinner scenes edited to perfection by Matt Friedman & Michael Taylor, a simple yet canticle score from Alex Weston, and Anna Franquesa Solano’s tremendous cinematography that captures two incongruous worlds as one, The Farewell is the kind of story so impeccably executed that it’s easy to overlook the skill required to make a movie of this caliber in the first place. And as someone who’s gone through tumultuous life events similar to those shown here, I can’t help but to believe that one of the worst things that can happen to a person is for them to lose their spirit and their will to live before they lose their body. The movie diagnoses physical illness and prescribes the soul some hope and happiness as a source of medicinal healing, and inspires us with the notion that maybe the results aren’t a placebo effect after all. The Farewell is, undoubtedly, one of the great films of 2019. It’s a hard one to let go.

“It’s a good lie.”

Rating: 5 out of 5

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