The Farewell: An Old Friend, by David Bax
In the opening scene of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) walks down a New York City street while chatting boisterously on the phone in Mandarin with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). Momentarily, she stops to exchange a few words in English with a sidewalk solicitor. Billi’s fluid switch and Nai Nai’s inability to understand her locates us in the liminal space Billi occupies. And that’s only the first time Wang is judicious and exacting in her use of language. As the story goes on, the choice–or lack of choice–to speak English or Chinese becomes strategic and revealing. Wang even extends her thoughtful application of language to the soundtrack, dropping occasional English songs, both diegetic and not, into the mostly Mandarin movie with impactful aplomb.
Billi moved to America when she was six years old, along with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma). She remains close, however, with her grandmother, which is why she’s so devastated to learn that Nai Nai is dying of lung cancer. Even more upsetting to Billi is the discovery that her extended family is following the apparently common Chinese cultural practice of hiding the diagnosis from Nai Nai. They’ve decided to stage the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to his girlfriend of three months, a young Japanese woman (Aoi Mizuhara) who doesn’t speak Chinese or English and thus provides one of the film’s many rich comedic veins, as an excuse to get everyone together once more before she dies. Billi’s parents worry that she’s too sensitive to keep Nai Nai from suspecting something’s wrong but, not too worry, she’s such an awkward weirdo to begin with that nobody notices.
With its culture clash set-up, The Farewell is well poised to turn into one of those instructive liberal films designed to make (white, American) viewers feel more worldly and well-rounded for having seen it. Wang has more personal, exploratory ambitions, though. The film’s dialectical set-up–whether it’s more ethical to keep the secret or spill it–is not divided between characters on one side or the other. It’s taking place within each one of them, Billi most of all. The Farewell is all the more engrossing and its weight all the longer felt for its refusal to let one argument win out. This is likely to be one of those films that expands upon repeat viewings.
Wang’s welcome preference for subtlety benefits the specificity and veracity of the movie’s setting just as it does for its ideas. For a film with such a big narrative hook, it doesn’t waste much time with exposition or explanation. Rather, Wang is languorous in domestic scenes, letting us feel out and infer who is related to whom and what they mean to each other. Her patience and eye for detail also result in The Farewell being what all the best films about family and home are, a terrific food movie.
That subtlety extends to the film’s aesthetics as well, with the exception of a sometimes too insistent and schizophrenic score. Wang saves broad touches, like slow motion or archly symmetrical compositions, for late in the game, when the mounting emotional and psychological tension warrants it.
Yet, rewardingly, Wang never lets the swelling culminate in the expected, forced catharsis. Some things, like the bird that comes into Billi’s apartment through an open window (a scene that recalls Michael Haneke’s Amour), don’t exist to be explained away. The Farewell is not designed to send you back out into the world feeling that you’ve learned or accomplished something but rather that you’ve only just begun a new relationship with life and death.