Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: "The Farewell"

In this age of (some) people constantly fretting about cultural misappropriation, we sometimes forget that homogenous cultures can seem very strange rather than alluring to outsiders. Things that are innocuous to one people can be incredibly off-putting to others. Stuff that we do every day can seem utterly bizarre to someone else who has never lived that experience.

“The Farewell” is a heartfelt Chinese-American story about a young woman who’s lived in New York City since she was a little girl traveling back to her homeland after she learns that her grandmother is dying of lung cancer. She’s astonished to find out that her entire family is keeping the diagnosis secret from her beloved “Nai Nai.”

Turns out, this is not at all unusual for traditional Chinese families. They believe that it is not the disease itself that kills somebody but their giving up all hope when they find out about it. So they simply do not tell the dying person about their condition.

This can go so far as enlisting doctors and other medical professionals to lie to their patients, falsifying test results and so on. It’s essentially society-sanctioned terminal gaslighting.

If this sounds too amazing to be true, consider that writer/director Lulu Wang’s own family provided the source material. “The Farewell” is a largely autobiographical tale about an American woman who finds herself at odds with her family, but ultimately comes to embrace their traditions.

Billi (singer/actress Awkwafina) is a 30ish woman for whom her family has high hopes. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to the States when she was 6 years old. Although she speaks the language reasonably well and has made regular trips back to the homeland, she’s a pretty typical Millennial, a bit overly self-involved but basically a good egg.

Nai Nai (a radiant Zhao Shuzhen) and Billi have a close relationship, despite the distance between NYC and Changdun. They talk often on the phone, with Nai Nai teasingly calling her as “stupid child” despite beaming about her intelligence and promise.

We don’t learn too much about Billi’s life before the story moves to China. She lives alone and is strapped for cash, and has just been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue her musical studies. She doesn’t seem to have close friends or a significant other.

Things really get rolling when the entire family gathers at Nai Nai’s place in order to bid farewell. To round out the pretense, they have even invented a fictional marriage to take place between Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara).

Like her own parents, her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) long ago moved to a foreign land to pursue a career. The faux gathering is the first time everyone has been home at the same time in 25 years.

Nai Nai is charming but domineering, insisting on being the queen bee of everything. Of course, she quickly overrules a small marriage ceremony and organizes a major reception. Everyone’s worried that Americanized Billi will spill the beans, but it turns out her relations have a harder time masking their emotions.

This the rare movie I wished was longer. At 98 minutes, we don’t get quite enough time to flesh out Billi’s relationships, especially with her mom and dad. She and Jian have one pivotal exchange where we learn that the dutiful wife and mother harbors her own conflicts and dashed dreams; she chides Billi for her self-centeredness while offering her own life as a warning.

“The Farewell” is a pretty conventional tale with few surprises – well, with the exception of one, which I’ll not give away.

The film contains a lot of scenes of food and eating, and it made me wonder if the Chinese use the concept of “comfort food” – simple but satisfying dishes that make you yearn for hearth and home. Certainly this is the cinematic version of that.

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