Lulu Wang explores the cultural gaps between East and West.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
There are movies that speak to me on such intimate frequencies they almost seem to be whispering into my ear and no one else’s. The Farewell, the latest film by Lulu Wang, is tender and warm, and it speaks directly to me about my relationship with my grandma. I think we as moviegoers are fortunate when we encounter a film that knows how to reach us.
The Farewell is based on parts of Wang’s life, but I suppose, as someone of Chinese descent, it could also be about parts of mine. We meet Billi (Awkwafina), a young Chinese American girl living in New York with her mum and dad. One day, she learns that her paternal grandma (Zhao Shu Zhen) back in China is stricken with stage 4 lung cancer. Instead of bearing bad news, the goal for Chinese families is to make the patient’s remaining days as happy as possible, even if it means concocting an elaborate fake wedding to explain why the entire family has suddenly convened in her living room.
Billi is most befuddled by this deception. She moved away from China when she was very little, so she’s grown up adopting Western standards. She feels her grandma should be told the truth. After all, it’s what any of us would do, right? She might have affairs to settle, old disputes to resolve. The rest of the family remains obstinate. As Billi’s uncle Hai Bin (Jiang Yong Bo) explains, “It’s the responsibility of the family to carry this emotional burden for her”.
The Farewell is a fiercely elegant picture that would’ve seemed less so had it not been led by Awkwafina and Zhao Shu Zhen. The relationship between Billi and her grandma is the emotional centre of the movie. For the story to work, we must first be drawn in by their affections for each other. Awkwafina, with her candid face and slight hunch, is very good at seeming discontent with her own emotions. Zhao, meanwhile, is basically like my own grandma. Generous, doting, cheeky, stubborn, endlessly jovial. I swear, somewhere there is a factory producing little identical old ladies from the mould of a Chinese grandmother overlord.
And so, the entire family continues with its questionable charade. The cast in a movie like this must be very good, and it is, especially Diana Lin as Billi’s mother, who presents a strong appearance but falls apart whenever she has to remind Billi of what it means to be Chinese. Wang milks her cast for every last ounce of earnestness, which might not have been difficult since her story flows with ease and cleverly demonstrates how two cultures can be completely different without either being wrong.
There is one moment, however, that slightly jarred me from complete happiness. It comes after the movie has ended. I won’t say what it is, but it shouldn’t have been included. It snuffs out much of the emotional drama the film so patiently built. When we are told something, we want to believe it, not be fooled suddenly by a cheap trick. The rest of The Farewell is among the finest minutes of cinema this year.
The Farewell is available in Australian cinemas from 5 September 2019
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films