Saturday, 6 June 2020

The Farewell

Lulu Wang (Posthumous) writes and directs this touching drama from 2019 which stars Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) as an independent twenty-something Chinese-American living in New York who responds to the family's need and returns to China when her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer.

Westernised as she is, she struggles with the family's eastern principle of not telling the old lady that she is going to die, as in their culture they feel it would serve no purpose - just increase worry and tension. Thereon in, much of the film is about just that - the differences between the east and west in terms of family values, played out in amongst the family gathering at a 'staged' wedding in order to get as many of them together as possible without letting the cat out of the bag. It is largely dialogue-driven and the script holds up well, full of interesting side-roads and cultural learning for most, as we become a part of this extended family for an hour and half.

There are comic turns in amongst the drama - one scene when they visit the grave of the grandma's husband is very funny as they all bow on demand, the director making the most of smart long-shots and shallow depth of field in the process. Likewise, planting the Japanese bride-to-be in the mix who can't speak a word of Chinese and the rent-a mourner scene with professional criers!

The whole film is beautifully shot. The reality of the city-life in China and New York, highlighting the differences between the two, artistic shots of the urban landscape and thoughtful interiors with attention to lighting. There are mealtimes aplenty, where the conversation is the real star, as we tag along as guests soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating our growing understanding of the inter-relationships.

The focus of the film is Awkwafina's character Billi as we find out more about how she happens to be in New York, the pragmatic emotionless attitude of her parents who took her there as a child and we watch as her eyes are opened to what's going on around her as she tries to make sense of the conflicting value-bases of different cultures. It's an interesting study which she grasps beautifully leading us along with her as we all consider what it is to say goodbye and how best it might be done. At this point, it could easily sink into tear-jerk territory, but it doesn't thankfully - rather remaining smart. Poignant and moving, yes, but intelligent.

I have a personal interest in this difference in cultures, having lived part of my life with one foot in each of them, and I can confirm that much of what is on display here is spot-on. At first, we hardened westerners, often devoid of emotion, can start to see the benefits of how others approach conflict, life and difficulties - and empathise with both. We see just that in Billi. It's an excellent portrait and a beautiful film which is currently available as part of Amazon Prime Video - so grab it while you can.

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