NOTE: We usually have a resident film reviewer, the ever-lovely Cher, but this time around, I decided on writing this up to tell you a story – my story. Anna here, founder of asienne and here’s my personal take on The Farewell. More on expanded author’s notes below. WARNING: A FEW MINOR SPOILERS (not a sponsored post)
Death is a bitch. It creeps on you. Grief, however... grief lingers. It says hello but it doesn’t really say goodbye. Not really. Not until You say it first. You have to see it through. Make sure you see it through. Or it comes back. Same as before. Unresolved. Avoided. Unhealed. It’s loud at first. Gnawing. Poking. Prodding. Then, slowly… it fades. Then, comes healing. Living –– again. Breathing – once more. And…maybe… just maybe… Acceptance?
My own grandmother passed away earlier this year.
Much like the film, she herself didn’t know she was that sick to begin with – let alone dying – until her diagnosis.
On the other hand, we, her family, also didn’t know she was sick– fatally sick – until it was a little too late. And so, much like the film, our whole family also rushed back home (for us, it was the Philippines to The Farewell’s China) to see her and be with her.
Immediately upon returning back from the Philippines, the trailer for this film was released. The plot, let alone the timing was very ironic, to say the least and I knew then I had to see this in theaters.
So the plot goes: A Chinese family keeps a huge secret from their matriarch about her own looming death. In what could easily have been a very melodramatic tale of goodbyes, Wang was able to successfully incorporate her Eastern roots with her Western upbringing and have it reflect her authentic experiences. How was she able to accomplish this, you may ask?
You’d have to see for yourself.
“Life is not all about money. Money can’t buy everything.”
Writer and Director Lulu Wang lent her voice and her experiences to Awkwafina who gives the performance of her acting career opposite from the comic characters of Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 we’ve come to know her for. Yet, her Farewell character is still very much a part of her that shines through her character Billi. On top of that, with Awkawafina’s own experience of growing up and being raised by her grandmother, you just know this had to be somewhat personal.
WARNING: A FEW MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
Surprisingly, Wang’s direction made me forget I was watching a movie with Mandarin subtitles. I felt like I was watching any generic English speaking indie film from any festival circuit; nothing at all foreign, as if the characters themselves were speaking English the whole time. This is my first time watching a film of Wang’s and it was refreshing to have witnessed and experienced a storytelling so original with its own quirky flair to it.
In fact, there’s a specific scene where the family was rushing to see nai nai at the hospital and they took a wrong turn and they’re running in the rain while holding different colored umbrellas. There’s something very offbeat in that adventure-like way which must be a reflection of Wang’s own perspective in life. It was refreshing to know that she was able to keep her own (seemingly upbeat) style despite the heavily emotional, thematic plot.
“You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is a part of a whole. Family.”
East: Family | West: Individual – It’s probably a concept that many non-Asian American viewers weren’t familiar with until Crazy Rich Asians of last year and it’s something that The Farewell was able to reiterate this year.
Evidently, the film’s message touches on a huge, emotional (and sometimes comic) process of how Asian families deal with death and life. The Farewell even gives you subtle hints here and there about what it’s about from metaphors of birds, to a dinner joke (which the title of this review is named after as it was referenced in the movie and is better explained here).
Based On An Actual Lie
“Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer they die.”
There were a couple of scenes with Billi’s mother that strongly resonated. One in particular to note was in the beginning when Billi finds out her “grandma is on the roof.” Her mother, then says that it’s not the cancer but the fear that kills those who are aware of their impending mortality – which is exactly why the family has chosen to kept nai nai in the dark about her own health situation.
Another specific scene that highly resonated was when Billi and her mother are arguing about how to properly react during this time of farewell. The mother screams, “You want me to scream and cry like you?” as she exasperatedly explains how she doesn’t want to show her emotions outwardly because it makes her feel as if she’s in a zoo (and she’s the one people are looking at).
There were definitely some more subtle blink-and-you-might-miss- it scenes like: how Billi breaks down and expresses how emigrating to the States changed everything so suddenly for her, and how nai nai reminds her sons – who both live abroad – how one should always remember where they come from.
Then you realize – as a viewer – she’s also telling you her own story; Wang, herself, is speaking to you through Billi.
You’re not only finding out about the lie that nai nai knows and the truth she doesn’t, but at the same time, you’re also finding out about Billi’s life story. You’re not just seeing everything unfold from her POV, you’re seeing her life in the East and the West and how this has affected her. In turn, you’re also finding out about Wang, herself.
Catch our candid, sit-down interview with The Farewell writer and director, Lulu Wang right here.
While Asian culture in itself is vast and it differs greatly per region and nationality, I would posit that there are some major similarities across the board from:
- grand banquet hall celebrations for big events
- special performances by family members and guests
- honoring the elderly and the celebrant with gratitude
- karaoke all day errday….
- conforming to (or challenging) gender roles for men and women in the family
- paying respect at ancestors’ graves
There is also the emphasis on the “collective” when it comes to Asian families. Everyone’s almost always in groups. The cinematography of the group shots effectively demonstrates this from: the dining tables whenever the family is having a meal (no matter if in-house, or out at restaurants), nai nai‘s reading of her own diagnosis
edit, and the slow-mo, strut-walking across the street that followed after. Everyone is in this together. The family is bidding nai nai ‘Farewell’. Together.
bonus: the soundtrack
Another one of the strongest elements of the film was its soundtrack which was definitely filled with heavy emotions. The film opens with a strong opening song and it’s goosebump-inducing. You just know it’ll be a tear-jerker.
Additionally, Elayna Boynton’s “Come Healing” echoing after the goodbyes added a new set of goosebumps and a fresh bucket of tears.
Listening to the full playlist after the film surely reels you back in the emotions you experience while watching it. That’s just how powerful it is.
One of my personal favorites is the ending credits song. Take a listen here.
this is why representation matters
“Life is not about what you do but more how you do it.”
It’s overall a strong work of art that’s derived from an authentic and vulnerable place.
For the ones who appreciate character-driven stories. This is for you. The writing is strong: authentic. The acting is powerful: as an Asian American woman, I definitely felt represented. And the soundtrack: emotionally haunting.
This is why representation matters.
With awards season 2020 coming up, I want to add that we should want to expect numerous nominations are on the horizon with Best Picture, Best Director (for Wang) and Best Actress (for Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhou) for starters. Is it too soon to say? It is after all, 2020. It’s time.
If you’ve ever lost someone – particularly an important and influential female figure in your life you were close to – this one’s for you.
If your grandmother, your lola, your nai nai is still alive, hug her.
And maybe, just maybe, watch this with her.
The Farewell is Now Playing Nationwide
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Have you seen it yet? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.