By Ryan Swen
Dir. Lulu Wang, U.S., A24
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell wastes no time in foregrounding its emotional intentions: its opening moments play out after the phrase “Based on an Actual Lie” appears onscreen. This text card—also prominently used in the film’s marketing—underscores the premise: a family hosts a faux wedding in order to pay its matriarch, diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, one final collective visit. They have concealed the truth from her due to Chinese cultural customs, in an effort to ease the soon-to-be-deceased into a peaceful passing. The narrative conceit comes from an actual experience Wang had with her grandmother; though the names have been changed, this establishing of a film à clef format is clearly designed to engender some additional level of intimacy or, perhaps, to justify what could come across as a contrived plot to American viewers—who, despite the majority use of Mandarin in dialogue, appear to be the intended audience, with China firmly situated as a largely foreign country.
Wang, who was born in Beijing and raised in Miami from the age of six, places her own perspective at the center of The Farewell via Billi (Awkwafina). An aspiring author living in Brooklyn, Billi is perpetually behind on her rent and banking on a Guggenheim grant to further her career. She is mostly close to her family—her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) live nearby—but all appearances suggest that she has a tighter bond with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), whom she calls regularly. Her equilibrium is upended by the news of Nai Nai’s illness, a shock compounded by Billi’s parents effectively disinviting her from the false wedding the extended family has arranged, for fear that she would be unable to keep the shared secret. Undeterred, she impulsively flies out on her own and joins the wedding party in her hometown of Changchun.
The Farewell is a film defined by rupture—the rupture created by the migration from one’s ancestral home to a new land and which is again brought to the surface during a return trip. These sentiments are especially common among Asian-Americans (like myself; my parents were raised in Taiwan, though I was born in the United States) who are frequently torn between the deeply instilled need to succeed and assimilate, and the desire to reconnect with their homeland, whether due to nostalgia for a lived experience or something less quantifiable. The film revolves around such questions, yet its point of view often feels overly prescriptive. Wang draws Billi’s generally caring and sincere family into rigid types, with little room for further depth. Among their ranks are her grandmother’s sister (Lu Hong), who has been caring for Nai Nai for decades and thus lives apart from her husband in Shenzhen, and her father’s older brother (Jiang Yongbo) and his family in Japan, which includes her only cousin (Chen Han), who’s set to “marry” a Japanese woman he’s only dated for three months.
One of The Farewell’s essential problems is that its affection for and attachment to Nai Nai is so clear that the rest of its narrative points and characters feel half-hearted in comparison. More than anything, the film is a showcase for Zhao Suzhen’s formidable talents in her first American film (though most of the film was shot in Changchun). Zhao, the only actor not burdened with an enforced dramatic arc surrounding national identity, is allowed to express a wide variety of emotions while retaining a consistent, deeply compassionate core. Whether she’s overseeing her family’s tribute to her husband—who also died of cancer, and for whom she also undertook the same benign deception that her family is currently enacting, a potential plot wrinkle that is only brought up once—or nearly breaking down in tears while arguing vehemently for a change to the wedding catering, Zhao infuses each of her scenes with a liveliness that is frequently absent from the rest of the film, even as it largely strives for comedy.
The extended family hasn’t been in the same room in more than 25 years, so the dynamics between them are understandably strained, but the result is only fitfully lived-in. Most interactions attempt to toe the line between comically awkward and genuinely heartfelt, to only occasional success, and The Farewell’s infusion of comedy into its dramatic concept often throws out of balance what could be a more straightforward story about sadness, placing more emphasis on humor than on interiority. Billi and her grandmother’s narrative arc is well-defined and affecting, but individual scenes surrounding it are forced, clumsily attempting to create a sense of milieu: a hotel manager asking too many questions on Billi’s arrival, the inexplicable shots of mobsters playing mahjong in a smoke-filled hotel room next to her family’s lodgings, Billi expertly playing the piano to end a scene—contradicting a statement about her prowess that she had made earlier. Billi’s central internal journey is frequently sidelined in favor of such scenes, and the film never manages to weave all of these disparate, scattered moments together into a coherent portrait of modern-day China; they’re odds-and-ends that come across as didactic rather than suggestive.
In one of the film’s many dinner scenes, Billi’s mother and a distantly related aunt argue about the benefits of living in America versus China, complete with a simplistic metaphor involving a pastor giving young Billi a key to his church so that she can practice the piano whenever she wants. This debate, in its reductive view of the Orient and Occident, first and foremost ignores the rapidly expanding economy of China, which goes unmentioned save for an oblique depiction via Billi’s grandmother’s old home, which has been demolished as part of the modernization of the city. On the whole, divisions are drawn far too clearly, both between characters and between cultures, most visibly in a scene where Billi’s uncle explains the difference between the East and the West, the former constituting a life lived as part of a whole family and society, the latter defined by individualism.
As much as it tries to lend nuance to this point, The Farewell never truly interrogates this deeply ingrained, distinctly Chinese ideology. Instead, the actual depiction of China, both in the actual landscape and in the non-familial characters, feels strangely remote, at odds with its general embrace of family dynamics. Wang’s directorial style—while generally and commendably devoted to master shots, patiently letting interactions play out in an unhurried manner that is relatively uncommon in the current American independent cinema—contributes to this feeling whenever the camera focuses on something other than human figures. Save for a few background images of street vendors, most of the scenes set outside are in gloomy or rundown settings: a raining bridge, a cemetery, the demolished old home. During Billi’s departure, she looks out the taxi window to virtually the same distant and overcast shots that she had seen before; the depicted reality of the filmmaking clashes with the narrative sentiments. Though this approach persuasively reflects a transposition of Billi’s feelings about her homeland onto her Nai Nai, the country is rarely given a sense of feeling and vitality, which only becomes more obvious as Zhao’s character becomes more ebullient.
As a result, the specificity of China is largely displaced and obscured, and The Farewell never communicates the full force of its semi-connected scenes of sadness and lost identity. Twice in the film, Wang deploys overextended, shallow-focus and slow-motion walking shots at key emotional moments in conjunction with the keening score by Alex Weston, first of Billi by herself following an emotional monologue and then of Billi with her family after a near discovery of their white lie. In context, the effect is less waves of emotion than the depiction of it, a shorthand visual technique expressly designed to connote displacement and which evokes none of the lived experience that preceded it. It is a film of sentiments spoken and shown rather than felt, stuck in a tentative limbo.