I’m leery about using a term like “Asian cinema”, as if the film movements of countries as distinct as China, Japan, and the recently Best Picture-winning South Korea were all part of the same cultural mass; as if they weren’t as unique to one another as they are to the cinema of any European country. Still, because awards bodies still have a lot of work to do in recognizing the contributions of Asian actors and creators (I will never forgive the Academy for snubbing Steven Yeun’s titanic work in Burning) and because I want to encourage anyone reading to look beyond the Western world for great art, I’ll fudge it and say that Asian cinema has had a great decade and an absolutely scorching last few years. South Korea has given us the best film of the year two years in a row. Japan recently gave us Shoplifters, a towering masterpiece about economic stratification to stand alongside the one that just won Best Picture You could fill multiple acting categories entirely with performances from the last two years of Asian cinema. This is the second year in a row where three Asian filmmakers have gone deep into my personal top ten. Bong Joon Ho just spent the past decade making vital, delirious gems culminating in history’s first foreign language Best Picture winner for Parasite. Last year saw a young woman from Singapore and a Chinese-American skater kid from America’s decaying Rust Belt make two of the decade’s finest documentaries. And here in America, two of our most promising directing talents are a pair of observant, endlessly empathetic Chinese-American women. One is Chloe Zhao, whose masterpiece The Rider soulfully cracked our 2018 top ten list, and who will soon make her Marvel debut directing the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani. The other is Lulu Wang, a New Yorker who has turned her own experience with a terminally ill loved one (the tale was originally featured as an episode of the superb, long-running human interest broadcast, This American Life) into one of 2019’s wisest, funniest, and most gently sublime pieces of art. In a year that gave us no shortage of richly emotional work, few films held me in rapt, misty-eyed awe like The Farewell.
Our true story begins with an old Chinese woman in the northeastern city of Changchun, seated in a doctor’s waiting room. She has just gone in to have x-rays taken and her sister is in another room receiving some very sad news from the physician. The woman, whose family calls her Nai Nai (a splendidly lovable and heart-rending Zhao Shuzhen) has Stage 4 lung cancer and only a handful of months to live. The sister walks out with a placid smile and tells her sibling everything is fine. She has a clean bill of health and the spots on her x-rays turned out to be nothing but “benign shadows”. While Nai Nai waits, she makes one of her regular calls to her 20-something granddaughter, Billi (rapper turned actor Awkwafina, graduating from her scintillating comedic work in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians into a full-stop great dramatic player), an aspiring artist who immigrated to New York with her parents decades ago. A couple days after speaking to Nai Nai, Billi learns the hard truth from her parents. The conceit of The Farewell is that everyone in Nai Nai’s family knows she is dying save for Nai Nai herself. Billi’s parents (wonderfully played by Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) break the news to her. Everyone will be traveling to China under the false pretense of Billi’s younger cousin’s wedding, where they will have the chance to pay their last goodbyes to Nai Nai without Nai Nai herself knowing that’s what they are doing. The one person not meant to be there is Billi herself, for fear that her fraught emotions and her closeness with her grandmother will give the whole ruse away. Billi shows up anyway, unannounced, and the whole film becomes an emotionally charged reunion, not only with the ailing woman, but with a whole clan of siblings and cousins who had gone off on their own separate journeys years ago. Everyone is solidly committed to this well-intentioned lie except for Billi, essentially the most Westernized member of her clan, who has conflicted feelings about the ethics of hiding her own grandmother’s imminent mortality from her. What forms is a complex human eddy of people processing their preemptive grief and finding the courage they need to pull off this grand deception. In its strange and modest way, The Farewell becomes the most intimate, cathartic version of Ocean’s 11 you could ever imagine.
The Farewell is one of the most touching and insightful immigration narratives I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. It’s a tale of our globalized world, with characters reckoning with the value of home versus the opportunity that comes from leaving our birthplaces behind. It’s a sweet little paradox of a film, where the big communal lie at the center draws everyone back to their place of origin and forces them to confront deeper truths about what was lost and gained when they made their individual decisions to either stay in China or venture out to see what the rest of the sprawling world had to offer. In one of the film’s most visually arresting sequences (The Farewell is the kind of film you think of as predominantly writerly until you go back and count its cavalcade of lovely, inventive shots), the larger family discusses the opportunities and bitter trade-offs of sending your children abroad or encouraging them to revere their homeland. As they sit around a restaurant table and debate, a cornucopia of different foods cycles along the very bottom of the frame on a large, mechanized lazy susan. The Farewell doesn’t pick sides, but observes, with sweetness and clarity, the nature of life in our big interconnected world and what that does to our collective sense of place, family and identity. As much as Nai Nai’s fate is the emotional engine of the film, what devastates Billi in a more unexpected way is being back in her birthplace all these decades later, sifting through old memories of neighborhoods long bull-dozed, and realizing how much she has missed all these people, her people. At the risk of dating this review, realizing the value of our relationships is, in this time of self-quarantine, extremely relatable.
The Farewell is one of the most soulful and endearingly character-centric films to weigh in on the age-old dialectic between Eastern collectivism and Western individualism; the rights of the one and the larger obligations we owe to the social groups we belong to: a family, a country, a world. To quote the decade’s most transcendent sitcom, The Good Place, who are we and what do we owe each other? To Billi’s more Westernized eyes, what Nai Nai is owed is honesty and the chance to not only face her own death with clear eyes, but to say her goodbyes to people. She is owed a degree of respect for her personal autonomy, her right to handle her morality on her own terms. In a gorgeous scene, set in a darkened bar room bathed in the orange glow of neon streetlights (again, what a lovely and thoughtfully framed film!), Billi’s uncle posits the matter differently. The imminence of one’s own death is a terrible burden and, rather than forcing Nai Nai to endure that fearful prospect that she can do nothing to change, they can take up that load for her. “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her”, he insists. What plays out is not some abstract examination of the individual’s rights versus our responsibilities to those around us, but a blissfully cathartic outpouring of human connection carried along by what might be 2019’s deepest bench of terrific actors. The fact that you’ve likely never heard of any of them outside of maybe Awkwafina (I certainly had not) is just one more reminder how much unrecognized artistic talent Asian cinema has had all this time, just waiting to be discovered by the larger world. When you get to The Farewell’s perfect and sly hero shot late in the film, you may feel like crying or cheering for this whole magnificent ensemble. For a group of people you’d never even known about just seventy minutes prior.
I could write until I’m blue in the wrist about mise-en-scene and editing and cinematography and the ocean of ideas that this blessed art form has still barely scratched the surface of. But I really love that, beyond all its rigor and insight, The Farewell is firmly a film for your heart, your soul, your funny bone and your tear ducts. It’s ideas about people as lone units and as parts of larger collectives are all undergirded by a profound love for human beings. Nai Nai and Billi are two of the most endearing, nuanced characters of recent years, and the caliber off screen acting that brings them to life is of the most rarified kind (surprise, surprise, both were ignored by the Academy). Beyond those two, the characterization of Billi’s parents, played with such pathos and rich humor, helps to form a vivid tapestry of what it means to be Chinese and to also search for an identity beyond China. Add an unfailingly dimensional cast of aunts and cousins, and you get a film that invests in effortless, empathetic humanism on the widest scale. I must once again stand up for the quietly breathtaking imagery of The Farewell, It’s easy to let its warmth, wit, and perfect acting distract you from how much thought has gone into its compositions. But, oh my, what sublime acting this film has! Lulu Wang works absolute marvels with her sharp, luminous and utterly dialed-in cast. When Billi’s uncle breaks down giving a toast to his unwitting mother, the camera pulls back to make him a tiny griefstricken figure alone on the stage, and it’s brought me to sniffly tears every single time. It’s hard to put it all into words without giving away the delicious human spontaneity of it all, but I’ll just say that you owe yourself the gift of The Farewell‘s generous, messy humanity. Billi realizes how much she’s missed all of her people and Lulu Wang goes full tilt to show shy it was so hard for her to leave all of this behind all those years ago.
And to bring it back to this belated celebration of brilliant Asian filmmakers (one that the mainstream is having full decades too late), what better way to tap into a heart-filling sprawl of Asian characters than with a magnificent ensemble. I love The Farewell because the depth of the ensemble really becomes a distillation of the film’s major themes. There’s the resolution to your collectivism versus individualism dialectic right there! Every one of these perfect characters (no less than ten of them just in the immediate family) is trying, with varying levels of difficulty, to commit to this problematicallly noble team effort. The tension of the film is about if they’ll be able to pull of this scheme together, and what the nuance of the cast shows us is that being part of a collective is not such a homogenous thing. As they each resolve to be part of this group scheme, so much lovely specificity comes shining through in each one of them. I think the ideas is that there are shades of grey in cultures we think of as strictly one way: individualist or collectivist, Eastern or Western. We see this idea rendered visually in one of my favorite scenes in the film, involving a visit to Billi’s grandfather’s graves. As Nai Nai delivers a prayer to her late husband’s headstone, she stops after each sentence to bow, and the other nine family members bow along with her. But each of them are just a little out of rhythm with each other, so it looks like some erratic wave of heads bowing out of and into the frame. It’s a funny and rather lovely sequence, tying into The Farewell‘s view of people banding together while also being fundamentally, fallibly themselves. Each one of us is our own fumbling person, but it’s nice to know that, if only in our shared fallibility, none of us are alone.