Death can be tragic or comic, but it is above all a matter of life. The Farewell views death through its unique Chinese point of view. The film is pleasant enough but like a corpse it left me a bit cold.
Aspiring yet financially struggling writer Billi (Awkwafina) has a friendly relationship with her parents: father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) but a very close and happy one with her beloved Grandmother or Nai Nai (Shouzhen Zhou) back in China. One night, Billi learns bad news: Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer and has been given a few months to live.
To say 'farewell' to Nai Nai the family cooked up an excuse that her cousin is marrying his Japanese girlfriend and all go to Peking to hold the wedding. Billi is pointedly left out of the plans, as Haiyan and Jian are absolutely convinced Billi will be unable to mask her emotions and reveal the truth, something the family is dead-set against doing. Billi is appalled that the family won't tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but they won't budge.
Billi goes anyway, surprising the whole family but delighting Nai Nai. As the family continues their deception and a blissfully unaware Nai Nai continues arranging the wedding, the family and Billi attempt to make their cases to each other. Wedding over, the family goes their separate ways, with only Nai Nai's sister to stay with their matriarch.
We learn in a post-script that six years after her diagnosis, Nai Nai is still with us.
The Farewell started out as a story on the radio show This American Life and it shows. If I closed my eyes, I could almost hear Ira Glass say "Act Two: Wedding Crashes". Perhaps at this juncture I should give my views on This American Life.
I find the show insufferably smug and a perfect cure for insomnia. I'm not exaggerating: I once fell almost into a coma listening to David Sedaris wax rhapsodic on how he auditioned for a kid's talent show by singing an Oscar Meyer jingle in the style of Billie Holiday. The Farewell might as well be a filmed This American Life episode, right down to the musical transitions which consisted of a wordless vocalist making what appeared to be ghostly sounds.
There were elements in writer/director Lulu Wang's film that left me a bit puzzled. For all the hoopla and grief Billi got from in particular her parents about not being able to 'put on a happy face', none of Nai Nai's family save perhaps her sister Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu) were any better. In fact, their unmasked moroseness was so overt it made Billi come across as Lucy Ricardo-like compared to her parents and uncle's family.
Perhaps it because I have personally seen situations like these play out, but Nai Nai's family was absolutely inept at hiding their sorrowful emotions. I don't know why they were all whining about Billi: they're far lousier at faking it than she was.
Like Jian, I too wondered how despite being so desperately broke Billi could afford a plane ticket to Peking. I wish I were anywhere close to her poverty level to where I could just jump on a plane from New York to Peking on a day's notice, and even have my extended family pay for the hotel room to boot.
I thought well of Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians and she was fine in Ocean's 8 but I am not convinced that she is the new Myrna Loy with this performance. She had a wonderful moment near the end when Billi expresses the hurt she still holds when she was uprooted from China to America and never having a chance to say goodbye to her grandfather, Nai Nai's husband. However, on the whole I think Billi was not a good character: time and again I found myself siding with her parents or extended family in their mindset.
Zhou was delightful as Nai Nai, pleasant, generally sweet and endearing but also not afraid to argue with the wedding hall chef about how she paid for lobster and was getting scammed with crab. She gave the best performance in The Farewell of a woman who blissfully goes on, accepting what she was told and embraces life regardless.
Jian and Ma were equally strong as Billi's parents, balancing as best they could their Chinese worldview with their American life and experiences.
The Farewell should be a universal story as there are many individual reactions to the impending death of a beloved family member as their are cultural methods of handling this situation. Try as I might however, I could not shake the notion that The Farewell was a live-action This American Life adaptation, the acting and story a bit too forced and theatrical save for Shuzhen Zhuo.
I'm glad Nai Nai is still with us and I can see how The Farewell has moved audiences. Perhaps however because my views on death are shaped by my own life experiences, I was not as moved by it. It's not a bad film by any means, just not as good as I keep getting told it is.