Wednesday, November 06, 2019

"The Farewell": review

2019's "The Farewell" is directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and Zhao Shuzhen. This is a family-oriented dramedy about a 30-year-old Chinese-American New Yorker named Billi Wang (Awkwafina) who has a close relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao). Nai Nai still lives in Changchung, China; she and Billi keep in touch by phone. Billi is an aspiring writer looking to receive a Guggenheim fellowship to fund her projects, but her general lack of success in life has made her a drag on her parents, father Haiyan (Ma) and mother Jian (Lin). Still unmarried, Billi is fulfilling neither the American dream nor the Chinese dream. Meanwhile, Nai Nai is scanned and diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, but it's her equally elderly sister who speaks with the doctors about the situation and keeps the truth from Nai Nai. Everyone else in the nuclear and extended family finds out, however, and Billi is especially distraught. Nai Nai apparently has only three months to live, so the family contrives a sham wedding involving Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han), who has been living in Japan with his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Hao Hao and Aiko have been dating for only three months; announcing a wedding this suddenly will cause rumors to spread that Hao Hao must have gotten Aiko pregnant, even though nothing of the sort has happened. The wedding is nevertheless an excuse to get everyone together one last time with Nai Nai, who still remains blissfully in the dark about her terminal illness. Billi's parents, who have lived in America for decades, tell Billi she shouldn't come because Billi tends to wear her emotions on her sleeve, and her obvious sadness would tip Nai Nai off that something other than the supposed wedding was up. Nai Nai's American branch of the family flies to China without Billi, but Billi flies to China on her own, using up the last of her credit card to buy the plane ticket. While Billi is indeed having trouble hiding her sadness about Nai Nai's health, she is surprised to find out that her father, dealing with his own anticipatory grief, is edging closer to blurting out the medical truth to his mother.

Much of the movie revolves around the conflict in American and Chinese cultural values. Billi's parents arguably have an easier time of navigating this intercultural reality than does Billi herself: her parents are naturalized American, and somewhat Americanized after decades in the States, but they still feel their Chinese roots very deeply, whereas Billi is much more thoroughly American in character, which makes it impossible for her to understand how on earth an entire family can conspire to hide the dark and deadly truth from the one person in the world who is most entitled to hear it. This conflict plays out in the family dialogue we viewers are privy to as Billi butts heads with various Chinese relatives and with Nai Nai's young, handsome, English-speaking doctor. Nai Nai, for her part, forges ahead, taking charge of the wedding preparations despite a worsening cough and several visits to the hospital, where she is politely informed she has lingering pneumonia. As old as she is, she's delighted to see the whole family together again and is determined to take away only the positives from this event, despite the obvious petty conflicts flaring up among family members and the sad looks that those family members occasionally cast Nai Nai's way.

I'm trying very hard not to reveal any major spoilers, here, partly because I'd like you to see this movie for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and maybe share your insights with me. This is ostensibly a movie about death and dying, interwoven with themes of family and culture, and thanks to Lulu Wang's capable direction and the superb acting of the cast, the story resonates with deep and beautiful meaning. I confess that it coaxed a few manful tears out of me toward the very end... but the movie does something at the absolute final moment about which I have very, very mixed feelings, and I'm not sure whether to resent the film for cheapening everything that came before that moment, or to applaud the film for offering a conclusion that is surprisingly positive and uplifting for a story so shot through with sadness and the inevitability of cancer. I'm still wrestling with this problem a whole day later, and I suspect I'll be wrestling for a long time yet.

One major plus is that this film compares favorably to dramas like "The Joy Luck Club," a film based on a novel of the same name by Chinese-American writer (and fellow band mate along with Stephen King) Amy Tan. I think Tan is a fine writer, in terms of technique and talent. My problem with her is that she has too much of an ear for treacly sentimentality which, at least in the movie version of "The Joy Luck Club," translates into moments of overwrought melodrama worthy of the emotional nonsense you see every day in those goddamn shouty-weepy Korean soap operas. There were, I admit, parts of "Joy Luck" that made me cry: the entire subplot about mother Suyuan and daughter June moved me deeply. But much of the rest of that film struck me as overly operatic in terms of the emotional heights it was reaching for. "The Farewell" has a better script and a leaner plot devoid of the sentimental curlicues that turned "The Joy Luck Club" into such an exaggerated mess. Lulu Wang's film faces family issues squarely, and all without delving into magic, superstition, or unwontedly metaphysical questions about fate and reincarnation. "The Farewell" takes time to inject humor and silliness into the proceedings, but it does so tastefully, and in a way that visibly makes an effort to be fair in its treatment of, and love for, both Chinese and American culture and values. I appreciated that balance, as well as the directorial perceptivity that cultivated it.

The film resonated with me personally, too, for several reasons. One of the most obvious personal connections was that the story was about a loved one dying of cancer. Another was that the story involved a clash of East Asian and American cultural values. I've been there: I had a Korean aunt who, back in 1986, was dying of stomach cancer, and no one would tell her what was wrong with her. As a high-schooler back then, I was too young and stupid and unaware of how the world worked to raise my voice and demand that people tell my aunt the truth. Now, at 50, I wonder if I'm too steeped in East Asian culture even to fight the Asian omertà, should it happen among my Korean relatives again. My #3 Ajeossi, who died of liver cancer this past January, was readily made aware of his condition by his doctor, and #3 Ajumma told me, quite frankly, about his cancer when she saw me months later. I was still frustrated that she never bothered to text or call me about his worsening condition in the months after his diagnosis, but that's also a quirk of East Asian culture, apparently: Koreans, at least, seem to love to gather in groups and jabber-jabber-jabber about nothing, but the moment something important needs to be conveyed, no one will do it. Asian society as a whole often feels like the triumph of feelings over facts: Billi's family can't tell Nai Nai about her condition because the truth would wreck her emotionally. Billi's uncle sternly tells Billi that herein lies the fundamental difference between East and West: Westerners each view their individual lives as their own, whereas Easterners believe they are part of a communal, collective whole. Not telling Nai Nai about her terminal cancer is, according to Billi's uncle, a way for the family to bear the emotional burden that Nai Nai herself would otherwise bear. Does this make sense to you, or do you reject this argument out of hand? I don't blame you if you do; part of me rejects it as well. It's bullshit because I've been taught that truth trumps everything, including your delicate little feelings. Not so in Asia, where emotions rule. When my mother was dying of brain cancer, I shared her MRI images with her. I told her what the doctors had been telling me about her prognosis. I was utterly frank, utterly realistic. I had to deal with Mom's older sister, who was in a state of complete, irrational denial about the whole thing. "She's gonna live!" my aunt yelled early on. I think she resents me for my realism, and that's a cross I have to bear, however unjustified. I also had to deal with Mom's self-proclaimed best friend, who warned me never to appear sad or defeated in front of Mom because to do that would be to kill her. I thought Mom's "best friend" was a real fucking bitch, but Asians do often seem to prefer forced happiness and fingers-in-the-ears denial to the facing of actual reality. Even after my mother had passed away, one of my Korean buddies basically said, "Get on with your life!" There may have been a measure of truth in such advice, but when he said that, Mom had only recently died, and I found his exhortation to be emotionally retarded. I would never say such a thing to him were his parents to die.

My aunt, the one with the stomach cancer, sobbed miserably as our family was leaving to return to the States. She had no idea why she was in such pain, but when I reflect on that day, I think she realized, on some level, that she would never see us again, and this realization only added to her pain and misery. It was a terrible way for us to say goodbye. I barely knew this aunt, so I admit I was confused about why she was crying so hard. Only upon reflection later on did I realize my aunt had a sense of our family's history, a knowledge dating back to well before the Korean War. And there we were, the American branch of her family—my mom with her white American husband and her half-Korean kids, all happy and jokey and robust. For my aunt, this was a glimpse across the ocean, not to mention a glimpse of the future: everything was all right, and everything was going to be all right. Our departure was doubtless sad for her because that vision was now being taken away, and a bit like Moses being unable to enter the promised land, my aunt probably knew she wouldn't live to watch this part of her family's story unfold. As mammals, we are all blessed or cursed with the ability to sense our impending death; even if my aunt didn't know what specifically was wrong with her, she must have known something was dreadfully wrong.

When I first heard and read about "The Farewell," I told myself, going into this experience, that I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen: Nai Nai would die, but right before she did, she would confess to Billi that she had known all along about her own illness. This prediction was, for me, a sort of metric by which to gauge the quality of the story: if Nai Nai did indeed profess awareness of her condition, then I'd hate the film for falling so easily into cheap cliché—the wise old Asian woman who had outsmarted everyone all along, and who had had a perfect understanding of her own fate from the very beginning. Again, without spoiling things, I'm happy to report that the film neatly sidestepped my cynical prediction. That's the fortunate part. The unfortunate part is that, in sidestepping the cliché, the film did something else, to which I've already alluded, that has left me in a bit of internal turmoil because I honestly don't know how to process what I'm now coming to think of as the film's punchline. And in saying that, I may already have revealed too much.

That said, I recommend "The Farewell" because it's a well-written dramedy that faces a slew of major issues head-on: death, dying, love, family values, and cultural values. The actors are all excellent, even the ones in minor roles. Awkwafina, who plays Billi as slouchy and depressed, proves she has the acting chops to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the talented Tzi Ma, who plays her father here, but who is better known on American TV and in American cinema as your run-of-the-mill Chinese bad guy (cf. his role on "24"). Zhao Shuzhen hits all the right notes as Nai Nai, radiating maternal love and care, but never crossing the line into blubbering treacle. Diana Lin, as Billi's mother Jian, is something of an unsung hero; Lin plays Jian as tough, world-weary, and sometimes even resentful because Nai Nai was a stereotypically haughty and dissatisfied mother-in-law to her over the years. Even when Nai Nai is dying, Jian finds it hard to let go of years of bitterness and gall.

"The Farewell" is based on director Lulu Wang's personal life: her own grandmother had, in fact, been diagnosed with terminal cancer. While parts of the film have a slightly exaggerated, played-for-yuks feel, the story is well grounded in authentic emotion. Whatever you end up thinking of the movie's punchline, I think you'll be moved by "The Farewell"—both emotionally and intellectually. The film is a healthy mix of thought-provoking, humorous, inspiring, heartbreaking, and uplifting. Also: I hope I haven't given you the impression that you need to be ethnically Asian, or to have relatives with cancer, in order to appreciate this movie. Everything about it will be accessible to you, whatever walk of life you hail from. This is, as Mr. Spock might say, a very human film.

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