The Farewell

The Farewell ★★★★

Happy to report that THE FAREWELL met (though not exceeded) my high expectations after such glowing reviews from so many friends on this platform. The comparisons I read floating around that compared Lulu Wang’s work to Yasujiro Ozu and Edward Yang, however, feel dodgy at best, racist at worst. While there is a focus on ensemble staging and a tight formalness to the framing, this is still an American Independent film, complete with a certain shagginess that keeps it from consistently reaching such poetic heights of those masters.

The particular irony of Lulu Wang’s script is that she makes a point to tell us the themes clearly for us to understand in a written-for-a-movie-trailer way: the uncle states that the main difference between families from western and eastern societies is that the former views them as a collection of individuals while the latter views them as a collective unit. Points for tackling such a rarely discussed idea in modern cinema, less points for feeling like we need this observation explicitly stated. What truly disappoints, however, is that Lulu Wang didn’t mirror the structure of her script to this cultural observation through pushing Billi into the background to show exactly how such an Eastern family would operate. Billi is far less interesting of a character than everyone around her. A scene late in the film where she expresses sadness towards her diaspora feels little more than an afterthought to imbue the role with more of a dramatic range. Despite being the leading star of the film, Billi’s personal life seems of little consequence to the entire arc of the story so it’s no wonder why we get so little of it. You might find yourself wondering why the film is devoted to her point-of-view and not the grandmother's before remembering that the production would unlikely (and unfortunately) get much American funding if it was completely centered around an older woman of color. I can’t fault the movie too much for using Billi as a conduit to this world. I can fault it, however, for the very last (completely unneeded) scene which egregiously tells us far too much information than we need to know about how personal this movie is to the writer/director while simultaneously letting all of the air out of its brazenly beautiful ending. Some things truly are best to keep secret.

Despite the inconsistencies of the overall vision of the film, there is still a lot of joy to be had. Almost every performance in the film is a master class of doing a lot with little which is as much a credit to the actors as it is to the writer/director since the latter, outside of a few previously mentioned hiccups, completely trusts her actors. Zhao Shuzhen, as the central grandmother, could’ve turned in a cutesy sympathy pillow of a performance, but there’s such a slyness to her performance wherein you can tell she’s not completely clueless about her impending situation, despite her family assuring her otherwise. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, as Billi’s parents, also turn in deeply fascinating performances that speak to their own difficulties with their diaspora and mortality in glances and hesitations rather than words and outright emotion. Even though I have problems with Awkwafina’s performance (a little too forced, a little too pat), even she excels past her limited range when she’s surrounded by such major talent. (My greatest hope is that this finds its way into awards consideration for its ensemble because I doubt a stronger cast will be found this year.)

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