I guess there are two things a movie needs these days to be successful, even if it’s only an independent or foreign film. It’s not enough just to be good — it has to be marketed well too. The people over at A24 Films seem to know what they’re doing: last weekend, The Farewell managed the year’s highest per-screen average to date, even higher than Avengers: Endgame. Granted, last weekend The Farewell only played on four theatres. But it’s clearly a strategy that worked: several publications ran stories about it. People on pop culture podcasts talked about it.
I fully expected the 6 p.m. showing I went to at The Egyptian Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill might be sold out. I pre-purchased my ticket last night for that very reason, and arrived twenty minutes early. In the end, the house was not sold out, but it must have been at least 80% full. I found myself wondering if it might have been even fuller if not for the Capitol Hill Block Party going on all of one block away.
The hope, clearly, is that The Farewell can rely on word of mouth, so here I am telling you about it. Honestly, I’m not convinced the film quite lives up to the expectation. I grabbed three napkins on the way in, fully expecting a massive tear jerker. I only wiped away a couple of tears.
But it’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. I’m just a white guy in America whose only window into Chinese culture is precisely movies like these. As the opening title card says, it’s “based on an actual lie” — the typical practice of Chinese families not to tell a terminally ill family member that they are sick. In this version of the story, written and directed by Lulu Wang, it’s the family matriarch, the grandmother they all call “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao, who is wonderful, in her sole acting role). She has cancer and is given three months to live.
Although maybe three quarters of the dialogue is in Chinese, The Farewell is actually an American production, presumably with an eye for both American and Chinese audiences. That bridge comes in the form of the central character, Nai Nai’s granddaughter who has lived in the U.S. since she was little, Billi, played by Awkwafina in a breakout performance. Awkwafina managed to shine as well in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, but those were “cool, fun” supporting parts, often quite funny. Here is a dramatic role which, although very much part of an ensemble cast, is the central character around whom the story revolves. We start and end with Billi, following her from New York City to Changchun, China and back, watching her as a very Americanized young woman struggling with this choice made by her extended family. In one scene, she notes that in America this would be illegal.
The family schedules a wedding for Billi’s one cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese wife, as a means of getting all of the family back together one last time with Nai Nai. Hao Hao lives in Japan because his father long ago moved him there, after all; Billi’s parents have themselves lived in the U.S. for many decades. But this wedding is the one area where Lulu Wang’s storytelling gets a little awkward, as both Hao Hao and his wife are barely utilized — as members of a relatively small extended family, it would have made sense to give them a bit more dimension as characters. Instead, Chen Han as Hao Hao doesn’t even have an audibly spoken line until what feels like halfway through the movie. Aio Mizuhara, as his wife who only speaks Japanese and does not speak or understand Chinese, never gets any lines at all, but for a brief scene in which she and Hao Hao sing a song together. It’s a little odd, given the extended sequence at a wedding everyone is pretending to be in their honor.
But if some of the supporting parts are not as fleshed out as they could have been, the relationships between Billi and Nai Nai, and also between Billi and her parents (Tzi Ma as the father with a sporadic drinking problem; Diana Lin as the mother who has a strained history with her mother-in-law; both actors are great), are as compelling as you could ask for. Nai Nai also has a sister (Hong Lu, also her only acting credit), who also has few lines even though she’s the one spearheading the secret. The whole scenario is deeply fascinating and poses a valid philosophical question. If this were an option for you, to keep their own terminal illness a secret from your own mother or grandmother, would you do it?
There is a certain difficulty in assessing a film like this for me, being so completely removed from the culture from which its premise comes. It seems entirely possible it would speak to people with Chinese families in a completely different way, and perhaps speaks most directly to American children of Chinese immigrants. The Farewell is genuinely moving, regardless of such nuances. It may not have made me cry as much as I expected it to, but perhaps that just means it makes the refreshing choice of avoiding emotional manipulation.
In fact, by and large this film is rather understated and subtle, which works very much in its favor. It’s quiet and contemplative, aided in large part by Awkwafina’s restrained performance. Its polished cinematography and tight editing conspire to make this a story, full of as much heart and humor as there is sadness, easy to fall into.