Top 20 Films of 2019: #8- The Farewell

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.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #9- The Souvenir

A full decade ago, I went excitedly to the theater to watch one of 2009’s Best Picture nominees, Lone Scherfig’s An Education. It was really a major cinematic event for me in a lot of ways. It was my first major encounter with international treasure Carey Mulligan, a terrific Alfred Molina performance, and a poignant script about being just old enough to choose your first fundamentally misguided romantic partner. It’s a very strong film, but I also left wishing it could have gotten over the hump into being a genuinely great one. Something in its composition felt a little workmanlike to me, in a way that undercut the emotional punch of the thing. I don’t say that to slight Scherfig’s fine character study, but to say that 2019 finally gave me the virtuosic, formally rigorous take on the material I wanted in the form of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Here is another lyrical, aching British coming of age story (brilliantly played by an actress having what I can only hope is her big coming out), featuring an endearing and complex young woman coupling with a seriously troubled older boyfriend, falling in love against all better wisdom, and receiving a painful and invaluable introduction to adulthood in the process. As with An Education, we get to meet a brilliant emerging talent (Honor Byrne Swinton, acting a subtle symphony alongside her legendary mother, Tilda) and we get a fantastic portrait of an insidious but magnetic boyfriend. Both films are about young women having a first glimpse of real romance and eventually getting put through an emotional wringer. We simultaneously cringe for them and root for them. The Souvenir is an absolute feast of great acting and subtle characterization, which trades out An Education‘s cagey womanizer for a less immediately odious and more ingratiatingly unhealthy breed of toxic beau. It’s a story where we want only the best for our main character, and one where we soon realize she must weather a tremendous amount of pain to become the woman she was meant to be.

Like many a great coming of age story, The Souvenir‘s tale of becoming who you’re meant to be involves making mistakes and learning about the things that really aren’t us. The poorly tailored outfits we wear when we’re figuring out who we are. In the case of the film’s protagonist, Julie, a 25-year old film student in 1980s London, that means rummaging through outdated ideas about what kind of artist she should be and chucking some of them in the dustbin. Though Julie comes from the highly privileged Knightsbridge neighborhood, she wants to make her first film a story of poverty set in the economically depressed shipyard city of Sunderland. It’s a notion she can never quite explain, though her clearest motivation seems to be a need to escape the shadow of her own moneyed upbringing and find stories about the greater outside world. At the same time that she is studying film at a nearby academy, Julie strikes up a deep friendship with a slightly older man named Anthony (Tom Burke, astounding as a character we come to care about and loathe in equal measure), a State Department operative who sometimes boards in one of the rooms Julie rents out. Their coy friendship blossoms shyly and sweetly into a romance and the two are soon living together happily and meeting one another’s parents on the weekends. Nothing seems untoward until one night, while dining with another couple Anthony knows, someone lets slip that Tom is a habitual heroin user. Julie realizes that her first true love is an addict, and suddenly all the times Anthony asked to borrow money from her takes on new meaning The two characters share a very strong connection and kinship, but Julie begins to see more and more of the pathetic, self-justifying monster Anthony is when the addiction is beckoning to him or when when he is in its full debased thrall. The Souvenir is a moving and devastating remembrance of a doomed first love; a look back at an experience director Joanna Hogg had when she was just starting out as a filmmaker. It is also a story of how life informs art and how art helps us to process life, even if it is many years down the line.

The Souvenir is the story of a gifted young woman with a desire to say something truthful about the world around her. The problem is that she doesn’t really know the world around her in any way that goes beyond the academic. She has barely seen a thing outside of the nicer parts of London. Her decision to make her first feature film the story of an impoverished boy from the working class streets of Sunderland (in every way the inverse of what Julie is) represents and admirable if waylaid hunger to force a worldly education upon herself. Unfortunately, it also means she has not clue what her film should really be about other than its own foreignness to her. It also falls squarely in that very British social realist tradition made famous by homegrown directors like Ken Loach, Karel Resiz, and Tony Richardson, which makes it feel less like an artistic choice born of personal conviction and more of a nod to the tried and true. Anthony tells her she seems to be operating off of some stuffy notion of what a respectable British director should be like. The paradox of The Souvenir is that Julie lacks experience and then, in a monkey’s paw kind of way, she receives experience. At last, something enlightening and horribly formative happens to her. To call the absolutely excruciating ordeal Julie endures with Anthony’s addiction a life experience feels about as British in its understatement as calling that same soul-altering ordeal a souvenir. But as devastating as Julie’s (or Joanna Hogg’s) first romance was, it served a purpose in her artistic development, and that is something. It gave her something real to say about love and trust and the power of human attachments to both cripple and sustain us. And the end result is a film that repeatedly caught my breath with its tenderness and painful candor. Here is maybe the finest of 2019’s directorial autobiographies, a film that draws a tidal power from the fact that this is something its maker really lived through. It is a subtle little testament to the value of lived experience. It tears open an old wound to provide its own balm. And it posits art as a frosted glass through which the artist can gaze directly upon searing traumas.

It is also one of the most shattering looks at addiction and romantic dependency I have seen. The depiction of Julie’s dawning realization of who her beloved is has a painstaking quality to it. Before anyone tips her off that Anthony uses heroin, Julie gets a tiny clue on the first night they make love:  a small sore on his arm, almost certainly from a needle. He also asks to borrow 200 pounds early into their relationship. Neither of these instances seem to trigger any alarm bells for Julie. The mystery of Julie in the early days of her first real romantic infatuation is that we don’t know how much she really knows; how much of her decisions come from naivete and how much is self-delusion in order to protect what feels like the most vital and important force in her life. When Anthony fakes a robbery to pawn her possessions for drug money, the delicate veil of pretense finally falls from her eyes. But she does not leave him. Anthony lies to her about the extent of his drug uses, he falsely pledges to go clean, and Julie tells her own likes to herself to protect what they have together. Because, as bad as things, get, I don’t think we can wave away their love away as just a bad decision born of youthful inexperience. In that way, I find The Souvenir to be different from An Education, where I never really thought Peter Sarsgaard’s slick, exploitative boyfriend was trully in love with the beautiful young woman he was stringing along. What makes The Souvenir so gutting is that learning the truth about Anthony does not give Julie the power to leave him. Things don’t simply end because, while Anthony may be a pathetic liar, that does not mean that their bond is untrue. In this version of the story, the problematic lover is not out to get his kicks and then flee when he gets bored. Anthony is madly devoted to Julie and wants very much to stay with her. And, for as much as her heart gets dragged across the pavement by his reckless, horridly pitiable behavior, Julie also cannot bear to be apart from Anthony. The Souvenir is a rivetingly sad account of an unhealthy love because it reminds us that ill-advised love can often be just as powerful and intoxicating and hard to deny as its healthier counterpart.

 

So, with that unsolvable human equation laid out before us, where are these two lost, fragile souls to go? What is The Souvenir building toward, as it pushes forward through its gauntlet of helpless ache? I have not desire to spoil if it can be avoided, so I will just say that it goes down one of the various paths such a story can go. The ending took the wind out of me, and hurt all the more for how unsurprised I was by it. It is not an easy or happy conclusion that The Souvenir reaches when it arrives, puffy-eyed and sleep-deprived, at the end of its 90-some minutes. What i sense the film contemplating, without having the will to voice it out loud, is that this is also perhaps not the worst conclusion one could conceive of. The Souvenir feels told in hazy snippets of reverie, the good and very bad moments of a formative young romance coming back to a mature woman as she whispers a prayer back to her scared younger self. What The Souvenir really captures is the bracing of anguish of being caught up in something too strong for us to get away from. A situation that we cannot end, and must therefore see through to its natural conclusion. Julie cannot simply walk away from this, nor can her steadiness and empathy make this nice and functional. It’s the kind of film where your heart dearly wishes this couple could either fix the problem or end the whole affair, and the dawning dread lies in the fact that neither of those options are on the table. The only thing left to do then is to hope that Julie can manage not to take all this mortifying grief and stress to heart, but that is not an option either. She suffers terribly with the burden of Anthony. She loses sleep, stays up wondering where he is some nights, shows up for classes looking half-dead, and takes on some portion of impotent guilt for every fresh trauma he visits upon her. “The only way out of it is through it” is a perennial bit of inspiration wisdom for people in the midst of some struggle, but The Souvenir finds the dark underside of that saying. The thought that there is a way out of a problem is of diminished comfort, when the journey is this sorrowful and scarring. The only solution for Julie, the only eventual peace of mind lies at the end of a sizable and ill-kept patch of pockmarked road, and she feels every nasty bump in it.

And for all the luminous composure in Honor Swinton Byrne’s stellar performance, we can see that Julie is still a child to the world. We never forget she’s a mere babe because we get multiple scenes where Julie visits her doting parents, which includes her soft-spoken, quietly watchful mother. She barely raises her voice, she observes more than she speaks, and a single wince from her does more to convey the concern and sorrow we feel for Julie than any bit of flowery dialogue could. A good part of what the character of Julie’s mother is so effective is that Tilda Swinton is, by now, an almighty deity of screen acting; an actress whose last even uninteresting performance I cannot presently name. I give full credit to Swinton’s meekly shattering performance. That said, what a brilliant piece of casting to have an actress of that power and precision watch her own daughter suffer some of the most blindingly painful hardship imaginable. What The Souvenir gets that is so crucial to its success isn’t just the maternal mortification of this ordeal, but the powerless of this woman to change this bitter course of events for her precious child. You can see she would throw herself head first in the way of it, if she felt it would do any good. But we’ve been over that. There is precious little to be done and grown children must be allowed to make their own decisions. Julie must see this through to the end. But the Swinton character does what she can, which is to be there for a daughter caught momentarily in terrifying freefall. It is one of the most understatedly beautiful parent-child relationships to appear on screen, powered by the brilliance of two great actors and the real love that exists between them offscreen. Julie’s mother is there to meet Anthony in the giddy early days of their courtship, and she is there for the end. Like any loving parent, she beams for her child during the best days, and she is still there with her when the worst finally comes.