Family Tension Lights up the Screen in The Farewell
There’s a moment about an hour into Lulu Wang’s immersive going-home-story The Farewell, when Billi (Awkwafina) confronts her father and uncle, with whom she disagrees about the family’s decision to hide from Billi’s grandmother the fact of her impending death. Billi defies the two increasingly weary men, pushing them to tell her Nai Nai the truth. For many Western audience members – especially those without the generational and cultural diversity of perspective that Billi has – this probably seemed like the inevitable second act catharsis. After all, lying to someone about their own cancer diagnosis in America, is, as Billi puts it later, “what’s the word for illegal?” This is where we get the big fight. The explosion of emotion. The fallout.
But The Farewell isn’t particularly preoccupied with typical plot machinations. While the many members of Billi’s family construct elaborate scenarios to justify this large family reunion, anchored by a manufactured wedding that has drawn everyone home to China under false pretenses, the movie itself is content to sit with these characters – and cook with them, and cry with them, and sprint across Changchun with them – wherever they may lead it. And perhaps more to the point, The Farewell doesn’t seem at all concerned with relieving tension, for its character or for its audience. And make no mistake: this is a film filled with tension. The generational tension between Billi and her parents, whose decision to move their family to the United States has left them with an unspoken burden that inevitably shapes their relationship with their daughter. The cultural tension between Billi, a Chinese-American who feels far more at home in Brooklyn than in Beijing, and the rest of her family, whose attitudes toward death, family, and honesty are rooted in their Chinese values. And most of all, the tension that comes when a family circles its matriarch with the melancholic nostalgia that comes with the end of a long, full life, yet without the emotional release that comes with confronting that end. Billi’s Nai Nai doesn’t know she has cancer, and her family doesn’t plan to tell her. When a woman with limited minutes left on this earth spends 15 of them trying to get a dog to smile, the irony is palpable. So when Billi finally confronts her father and uncle, we don’t get a whip-smart Sorkin-esque retort-fest, or an outburst that would fit snugly in the third act of a Baumbach family dramedy. Instead, for Billi, it’s a chance to learn. Her Uncle delicately but firmly tells her that what seems like a morally superior pursuit of truth is actually an act of extreme selfishness. He says that Billi can’t handle the weight of the situation, when in fact that is her and her family’s only job: to carry the crippling burden that comes with this grim reality so that their Nai Nai, in her final months, weeks, and days, doesn’t have to. And Billi listens. It’s a sobering moment, especially for someone like myself, a Boston-born Catholic who learned from an early age that grief and theatrics went hand-in-hand: the more you wailed in death, the more you loved in life. But The Farewell wouldn’t give me such empty satisfaction, and it certainly wouldn’t let Billi return to New York City with nothing but empty tear ducts. Instead, the film is patient. Billi doesn’t realize how much she’s learned – how much she’s changed – until she’s sprinting through Changchun, trying to get to the hospital to prevent Nai Nai’s maid from picking up the test results and learning the truth. That tension isn’t relieved in the classical way, of course – it turns out the maid can’t read anyway. The tragedy is avoided, but Billi isn’t the hero grasping victory from the jaws of defeat at the last second either. Life, and The Farewell, don’t work that way. And just like Billi, I didn’t realize how much I had taken from The Farewell until the hours and days afterward. Increased perspective on a generation and a culture of which my life has afforded me limited personal experience. Insight into the very different burdens that immigrants and their children carry, often alone, often affecting their relationships with each other. And introspection on family, both my own and those around me, and how and when we support each other. All of these lessons were embedded in Lulu Wang’s script, in Alex Weston’s classical score, and in the performances of Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen as Billi’s Nai Nai, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as her parents, and even Chen Han as Billi’s groom-to-be cousin who breaks down in barely-restrained tears at his own wedding. Yet none of it is spoon-fed to the audience via watershed moments immaculately spaced throughout the film’s tight 98 minutes. Instead, it comes naturally. The Farewell’s ultimate grace lies in its overwhelming commitment to its characters. Every moment is an honest reflection of these very real people at this very specific moment in their lives, from Chen Han’s drunken attempts at playing a party game to the family’s heated debate over whether to leave a cigarette at Billi’s long-deceased grandfather’s grave – he lied to his wife while alive about quitting smoking, it would seem, and smoking won’t hurt him now that he’s dead, anyway, they decide. I’ve spent hours chewing on the many messages in The Farewell’s text, but for that hour-and-a-half in the theater, I thought about absolutely nothing but this family. But that makes the takeaways resonate even further, and for even longer. When a movie stops what it’s doing to tell you what to think, you certainly think about that thing. It’s successful, in a way. But more often than not, you’ll forget soon after, with no anchor to tie the idea down in your mind. But when a film’s characters live on in your brain and in your heart, showing you what they’re feeling and what they’re going through, rather than telling you, that’s when a movie can really stick. For Nai Nai, her grandson’s wedding isn’t about these grand gestures or speeches that are so perfunctorily performed. It’s about the details. Getting the lobster, not the crab. Snapping the best pictures of the happy couple. Reminiscing over war stories and lost loves, and drinking with your family until someone does something stupid. If you go out and see The Farewell, don’t worry about grasping the greater themes (they’ll come) or anticipating the climactic catharsis (it won’t). Rather, for this precious nearly 100 minutes of your day, enjoy the tension, get to know this family, and just focus on the details. You won’t regret it.