If You’ve Experienced Grief Lately, You Might Find ‘The Farewell’ a Little Triggering
I had a hard time finding someone to review The Farewell. My chief movie critic just lost his mother-in-law to Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, similar to the cancer that afflicts Awkwafina’s nai nai in the movie. Even though he’d actually seen the movie, he didn’t feel like revisiting death so soon. Two other reliable critics were both dealing with sick or dying mothers themselves. So they begged off.
THE FAREWELL ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Lulu Wang
Written by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Han Chen
Running time: 100 min
Fine. I’d go see the movie. The things I do for art. I didn’t want to, because I knew it was about death. And death has been my constant companion lately. I’ve lost my mother, my father, my beloved pet dog, and my grandmother in the last two years. Grief and loss weigh heavy on me every day, like an extra limb.
And while The Farewell isn’t only about death, feelings of grief and mourning and loss pervade every frame. Billi, an assimilated but Chinese-born hopeful filmmaker living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, learns that her beloved nai nai has terminal cancer. She and her parents hop a flight to China, where the family has ginned up a wedding as an excuse to see nai nai one more time. As is apparently the custom in Chinese families, no one will tell nai nai that she’s dying. Instead, they pretend to have a good time while she tells them to eat more and to wipe the frowns off their faces.
Based on a This American Life audio essay, a phrase that fills me untold tsuris, this film covers a lot of territory in a little more than an hour and a half. One of nai nai‘s sons bailed for America, the other for Japan. One of her grandkids is marrying a Japanese girl, the other is an unemployed Brooklyn hipster. All of them feel hopelessly drawn back to Mother China, but the China they knew as children has been long mowed under by progress. Nai nai, apparently, was once upon a time a tough soldier in Chairman Mao’s army, and one of her former comrades still fancies her. Life is complex. Director Lulu Wang knowingly fills every frame with wistful regret, subtle humor, and delicious-looking banquet food.
Wang has a great eye for detail in The Farewell, like the broken elevator in the sleazy “hot pillow” hotel in which Billi and her family must stay while prepping for the wedding, to the lazy banquet employees at the wedding themselves, to the cheesy decor of the massage parlor that Billi visits for a little pre-wedding cupping ritual. Nothing feels like a movie set, and everything feels deliberate. While Awkwafina appears in most scenes, and definitely delivers a strong performance, the rest of the cast inhabit their roles as well. It feels like we’re watching real people.
Billi’s uncle delivers a heartbreaking wedding toast. Her mother struggles with typical resentments about her mother-in-law and her own feelings of pent-up grief and loss. Her father has a “fatty liver” and you get the sense that he’s going to die within a few years as well. It’s not your family, but it’s also not some sort of exotic at-a-distance remove. China might as well be New Jersey. This could be you, and your grandma, and your parents.
After I got home from The Farewell, my head and heart felt heavy. The dark fuzz of grief, which has lately begun to lift, once again clouded my mind. I found myself sad for no reason, and angry at the movie’s ending. Wang reveals that the real nai nai is still alive, six years after her diagnosis. Well, Ms. American Life, not all of us got so lucky. Some of us had to watch our mothers wither away and die in 36 hours, without warning. Not all the tai chi in the world would have saved her. This false note provides a fat clunk on the end of an otherwise fine, sweet, subtle, and funny movie.
We distract ourselves with social media, streaming TV, and vacation, but death lurks right around the corner all the time, for all of us and for everyone we love. There’s a reason why I couldn’t find anyone to review The Farewell, and why the theater I saw it in was almost empty. Everyone already knows that life doesn’t have a happy ending.